US Copyright Office Considering Abandoned Online Games Exemption

The U.S. Copyright Office is currently considering easing DMCA anti-circumvention provisions which come up for renewal every 3 years. One of the most important topics being considered this year center around the preservation of abandoned video games.

Previous rulings have granted museums, libraries, and other archival organizations the right to use emulators and other tools to make old games playable. But as we know, those tools alone cannot re-create an online gaming environment that requires an ongoing connection to an external server.

Last year, the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (the MADE) argued for an expansion of the archival exemption to also cover online games. The MADE wrote to the US Copyright Office:

“Although the Current Exemption does not cover it, preservation of online video games is now critical. Online games have become ubiquitous and are only growing in popularity. For example, an estimated fifty-three percent of gamers play multiplayer games at least once a week, and spend, on average, six hours a week playing with others online.”

This push for further exemptions from copyright and DMCA laws hasn't gone unanswered by the video game industry. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) which represents Electronic Arts, Nintendo, Ubisoft, and others vehemently oppose the proposed changes. They claim the new rules would allow outsiders to recreate online game environments using server code that was never supposed to be made public. Among the largest complaints the ESA has is the potential use of third parties to assist museums in reverse engineering server-side code:

“Worse yet, proponents seek permission to deputize a legion of ‘affiliates’ to assist in their activities."

No final decision has been taken by the copyright office, but its clear where we stand on the issue. There are dozens of culturally important MMORPGs that have long since been abandoned by their copyright owners. There is no good reason these cultural relics should not be revived for archival purposes, especially when you consider the fact that there are already many gray market commercial private servers already in operation for many of them.

Further Reading: Torrent Freak Article, ESA Response [PDF]