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Using Old Software: Abandonware Explained

written by: •edited by: Aaron R.•updated: 1/31/2011

If you've come across some old software on the web and decided to use it, beware - you could be breaching the owner's copyright.

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    Why Obsolete Software Does Not Equal Abandonware

    Old software often sits on shelves, unused, or has a rarely visited home on an old hard disk drive. It might sit on a floppy disk (or six) in a box or drawer… or it might find its way onto the World Wide Web.

    Software that is no longer developed (and typically hails from before 2000) is typically referred to as “abandonware”, which generally indicates that the software has been made available to users free of charge but with some typical caveats.

    However, not all obsolete software is free, nor is it abandonware.

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    Abandonware Defined

    Software described as “abandonware” is that which is unable to be purchased, has no product support, unclear copyright ownership and is no longer maintained by the publishers or developers.

    These things can all occur over time, with the development of new operating systems that pose compatibility issues a common cause of software being labelled as such. Similarly, company buyouts can lead to complicated product rights issues, with the new owners opting to leave software undeveloped and unsupported.

    Common abandonware are gaming titles from the 1980s and 1990s, as well some utilities and productivity applications from the same era (although the term can also refer to some hardware).

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    Abandonware: Obsolete Software, Free Downloads

    The common image of abandonware is old computer games that typically need to be run in an emulator, such as DOSBox, or perhaps in compatibility mode.

    Is Obsolete Software Free? Often Abandonware is run in DOSBox These games and utilities can be found listed on many websites as well on the BitTorrent network, and can be downloaded free from either. This is where the problem arises; listing an item as being abandonware is one thing, but making it available as such when its creator hasn’t declared it as such can draw unsuspecting users into committing theft. Sites that list non-declared software as abandonware are in fact committing software piracy.

    As you can see, the topic of free obsolete software is a thorny one.

    Popular abandonware sites, such as the following, claim to have taken steps to ensure that the software they make available is done so legally

    …while others can be found via The Official Abandonware Ring.

    (Image via

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    Is Obsolete Software Free?

    While sites like those listed above might feature abandonware downloads and contact the software houses and developers responsible for the initial releases to ascertain the current state of play (i.e., whether the titles can be considered abandonware or not) this doesn’t mean that all obsolete software is free - quite the opposite, in fact.

    These sites prove that reasonable attempts must be made to establish the copyright of an obsolete product before it can be made available for downloading by others.

    Following this courtesy is a moral obligation to the software and its developers, and will also provide you with the answers you require.