Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

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0xC0DE
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Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by 0xC0DE » Wed Mar 27, 2019 9:13 pm

Fortunately we can download many old games or applications from several websites. I gather it's a bit of a legal gray area to make this available for download, isn't it? With copyright issues and such. How does this work exactly?

I'm also interested in reverse engineering some old games, modify or enhance them, and then (maybe) make them available for download again. And the same goes for porting games (e.g. from Beeb to Elk, from Spectrum to Elk, etc). I've seen many examples of this. We've all seen the great Stunt Car Racer or the many fantastic ports to the Atom by Kees van Oss. How does this work legally? Do they ask permission from the original copyright holder, or ...?
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by daveejhitchins » Wed Mar 27, 2019 9:28 pm

Try here :D

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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by 0xC0DE » Wed Mar 27, 2019 9:40 pm

I'm sorry Dave, how does that page answer my questions exactly? Am I missing something here :?: :P
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by daveejhitchins » Wed Mar 27, 2019 9:48 pm

0xC0DE wrote:
Wed Mar 27, 2019 9:40 pm
I'm sorry Dave, how does that page answer my questions exactly? Am I missing something here :?: :P
Find the DVD . . . It's full of Electron Games - probably just short of all of them.

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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by tricky » Wed Mar 27, 2019 10:00 pm

Probably!
I assume that I am breaking some law when I make my games available, but will take them down if asked and assume that no one really cares except about Repton, some educational titles such as Granny's Garden and anything by Nintendo.
I know that Jim Bagley does try to get the copyright holder's permission for his games (although he is far more professional and has a much wider audience) and sometimes they are happy to say OK, but sometimes it is just too difficult to find who the copyright holder is.

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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by Ramtop » Wed Mar 27, 2019 10:45 pm

0xC0DE wrote:
Wed Mar 27, 2019 9:13 pm
Fortunately we can download many old games or applications from several websites. I gather it's a bit of a legal gray area to make this available for download, isn't it? With copyright issues and such. How does this work exactly?
It's illegal to make anything available for download without the copyright holder's permission, not any wiggle room in that regard. There is, unfortunately, no concept of abandonment in EU/UK copyright (and by the way things are going there never will be) so even the oldest, most obscure software is still subject to copyright and can potentially get you in trouble.

Patching or porting don't change anything, really. Legally you need the rights holder's permission to distribute any piece of the original.

That said, the vast majority of 80s games and applications are effectively abandoned. The publishers either no longer exist or don't care, and most programmers (to whom the rights to a title often revert if the publisher goes out of business) again either don't care or are happy for their games to be distributed, although sometimes they put a non-commercial only limit on that.

So it's technically not legal, but in practice nobody really bothers much. Particularly if you stick to software that doesn't have a still-existing, well funded publisher - looking at Nintendo, here. Closer to home, Frontier Developments were a bit sniffy about people putting Elite versions up for download, but they seem to have gotten over that now.
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by roland » Wed Mar 27, 2019 11:01 pm

AFAIK know there are no copyright complains about the Atom Software Archive. Personally I would be honoured if nowadays people are interested in my 30 year old software. But yes, it is copyrighted and so it is illegal to offer for download or distribute it. The copyright expires 70 years after the author dies but I think we cannot wait for that :lol:
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by BigEd » Thu Mar 28, 2019 8:02 am

Although copyright law applies, it's a civil law not a criminal law. So the copyright owner would need to care, and get involved. For most purposes, assuming permission, giving credit, and offering to remove anything if asked, is enough.

The same applies to 'derived works' - if you're starting point was someone else's code, they have copyright in the derived work, as do you. The new work is jointly owned. (If you only copy the look and feel, that's a different matter, and I don't have a clear picture. If it's not pacman, you'll be fine.)

(That said, copyright law is changing, and not in a good way, but I don't have a model for the new model.)

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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by 1024MAK » Thu Mar 28, 2019 8:23 am

Before reading the following comments, please take note that I am not a lawyer and the following is not legal advice.

It is strongly recommended that if you distribute any software where you don’t own the copyright or modify and distribute any existing software, that you at least try to contact the copyright holder(s) and authors to ask permission.

If they say no, then at least you then clearly know the situation.
If they say yes, great 👍.
If despite your best efforts, you are unable to locate or contact them, or they ignore any communications from you, you will then have to decide if you wish to risk being chased when they do find out (assuming they care).

In most cases (but not in every case) copyright infringement (especially small scale and where no money is being made) is a civil matter rather than a criminal matter. So the copyright holder would have to take you to court. If you do receive a request, complaint, (take down) notice or similar, if you discontinue the distribution, often the copyright holder will not take any further action.

And of course, if you don’t have permission you are breaking the copyright law.

The feelings about copyright vary across the various ‘retro’ computer communities. In the Sinclair QL scene, software where permission has not been obtained is not normally distributed.

Whereas in the Acorn 8 bit scene, the attitudes are far more relaxed.

In the ZX Spectrum scene, there has been outright war with attacks on websites where allegations have been made and various other attacks and legal action (although a lot of the trouble has been related to the Vega+ mess).

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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by kieranhj » Thu Mar 28, 2019 1:55 pm

For my Prince of Persia port, Jordan Mechner, the author of the original game posted the Apple II source to GitHub: https://github.com/jmechner/Prince-of-Persia-Apple-II with the following statement in the readme:
As the author and copyright holder of this source code, I personally have no problem with anyone studying it, modifying it, attempting to run it, etc. Please understand that this does NOT constitute a grant of rights of any kind in Prince of Persia, which is an ongoing Ubisoft game franchise. Ubisoft alone has the right to make and distribute Prince of Persia games.
This, plus the precedence of previous ports to other platforms, I took as an OK to release the BBC Master version as a non-commercial title. I sent a Tweet to Jordan sharing the final results and did not receive any request to take down the content. There were some folks on the forum asking for a boxed release of the game, or even potentially to make donations for the time spent, but I declined all of these to ensure this was continued to be clearly seen as a non-commercial project.

For Stunt Car Racer, again I took the precedence of previous ports to other 8-bit platforms as a suggestion this would not be considered a problem to release as a non-commercial title. I did attempt to obtain contact details for Geoff Crammond but I understand he does not wish to be contacted directly, only through his agent. With another party involved I felt this was a bit too formal a route for the nature of the project, but this is clearly not a sound legal position. In the unlikely event that I was asked to take the content down then I would do so, albeit with great disappointment.
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by 0xC0DE » Thu Mar 28, 2019 3:21 pm

Thanks everyone (so far) for your practical insights and advice on this matter. Very interesting! :D
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by Diminished » Thu Mar 28, 2019 4:07 pm

For the Citadel Randomiser I originally wanted to release a run-time patcher with none of the original code or assets needing to be distributed with it. Unfortunately there were various versions of Citadel -- some protected, some not, some Master-compatible, some not -- so I ended up including the game along with the randomiser. The randomiser still stands alone from the game though, so I theoretically could still distribute it standalone if there ever happened to be a problem with copyright -- you'd just have to own an appropriate version of the game beforehand in order to play it.

Game hacking best practice is to distribute modified versions as patches rather than including all the original code and assets, although in many cases (hopefully including this one) it doesn't really matter.
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by oss003 » Thu Mar 28, 2019 6:03 pm

I did converted a few BBC/Electron games for the Atom. In the past, Dave Moore told me about copyright and for most of the games I converted, Dave or I tried to get in contact with the author to ask permission but mostly not getting an answer. For Elite I contacted David Braben and Ian Bell but only got an answer from Ian Bell telling me that he didn't have any problems with converting Elite for the Atom and he liked the Atom port. He also published the sources on the internet so I guessed it would be ok.

For the AGD games, I asked Jonathan Cauldwell, the author of AGD for permission. He encouraged the porting because he published a Multi Platform AGD version with the intention to get games running on other platforms. For the games, I posted several messages on the AGD site to see if people had problems with publishing their games for the Atom. I also contacted some authors personal to ask permission and always got positive feedback.

I think most games are very old and not interesting for the authors, I don't know if there still is some copyright on them and that's why I always mention the original author in the game. Also because there is no commercial goal by publishing the games, people won't have any problem with conversions and it's nice to see your game running on another system. Would some authors do have problems with publishing the Atom port, then I'll remove that game from the site.

Greetings
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by 0xC0DE » Thu Mar 28, 2019 6:06 pm

Kees, thanks for sharing your approach and also many thanks for all the wonderful conversion work you have done so far! =D>
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Re: Is it legal to make ported or modified games available for download?

Post by DaveBurke » Thu Mar 28, 2019 7:32 pm

I'm a games programmer, so for what it's worth, my take would be this:

If in thirty years, someone ported one of my creations to an obscure retro platform and stuck it on the web for free (especially if it was a historical archive like bbcmicro.co.uk), I'd think "LOL, good work". If they'd tracked me down to ask permission first, even better.

Where I would draw the line is commercial usage. If someone's taking my stuff and making money from it without asking, I'm going to be rather unhappy.

Of course it's a bit different these days, with dev teams often numbering over a hundred people, it's not like one person makes a game on their own any more.

That's just my opinion, others may think differently and that's perfectly OK :)

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