Internet 'Grey Areas'
The Internet has opened up whole new avenues of freedom for people: freedom of information, thoughts and the ability to achieve anonymity while still being active in a community. This freedom has been latched onto by a large proportion of the Internet user base and has fuelled a desire for even more liberties. This in turn has given rise to the 'Internet Grey Areas', those little things that 'everyone' does but which aren't quite legally correct. A few examples are Abandonware, MP3 downloads, warez and their kind.
Abandonware is the label applied to games that have been 'abandoned' by their original developers. The standard rule has become that if the games are more than four years old and no longer freely available for purchase, or if the developer has closed and hence the game is no longer supported, then it can be called Abandonware and distributed freely. Some developers willingly release their older software titles into the public domain making them legally Abandonware but a large number of titles labelled as such are not technically free for public access. The licences are still owned by someone and the distribution of their software titles could be harming their licence validity.
Abandonware justifies itself by preserving gaming history in a 'living' way. It allows people to play the games they used to love long after they're available to purchase. In many cases the only hope for finding older games is to trawl second hand shops and online stores such as Ebay in the slim hopes of coming across a particular title. Sometimes when you finally get hold of the old software it simply won't run on your PC leaving you with a pretty box but no closer to actually playing the game. Several times I've purchased an old game and then downloaded a copy off the Internet so that I can actually play it due to the fact that old disks are either damaged or the wrong type (I don't have a 5 1/4" floppy drive on my PC any more...).
MP3 downloads have a less honourable ideology. Simply put, people want free music so they download it. It is said that the activities harm no one and that the downloading process doesn't adversely affect artists' profits. Who can say for sure? At the time of writing this article the RIAA's site is down and I'm not able to find any accurate figures that estimate the amount of revenue lost due to music piracy. I believe that it was estimated at around $5 billion in 1997 and that's sure to have increased with the advent of broadband. However, these figures are said to be highly inaccurate. A standard argument against them is "I wasn't planning on buying the CD anyway so they haven't lost any money out of me downloading it", an argument that is ridiculous at best. The Movie downloading scene is almost identical. I'm not going to swing one way or another here, but I will say that I can think of several films that didn't receive the box office takings from a number of associates of mine after they had gotten to experience the film before its release date. The quality of the films almost justifies the stealing, but that's a whole different issue!
The Internet community gets riled up over companies asserting their rights on the Internet (which is odd... companies asserting their legal rights being seen as evil while individuals illegally attempting to assert what they believe should be their rights are forces for good...) but the simple fact is that it is damaging for a company to allow the theft of their licences to go unnoticed. In the case of Abandonware, if it can be proven that a company knew their products were being illegally distributed but did nothing about it then the copyright over that particular licence can be lost. The revenues lost due to piracy in its many forms are surprisingly enough, damaging to companies.
I think that it's unfortunate that the freedom provided by the Internet has lead to such abuse but I can see the validity of both sides of the arguments. Companies want and deserve their revenue for the services they provide. Abandonware infringes on a company's copyright and can lead to them losing their licences if they don't hunt down offenders. The consumers on the other hand have to pay increasingly steeper and steeper prices for the products, something that is often blamed on the increasing rate of piracy, which is blamed on the continuous increase in prices and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle. CDs are very expensive if you only want one or two songs off the CD, which is where online music stores can come into play. There you can purchase the licence to a song relatively cheaply without having to pay a lot for an entire CD you that don't particularly want (and they have the added upside of having more of the money make it back to the artists who created the music as opposed to the corporations that distribute it).
I guess in the end everyone has to make their own decision about where they stand between the concepts of 'Morally Correct' and 'Legally Correct'. Me personally, I like to stand a little closer to 'Legally Correct' than most. It's been my experience that 'morals' tend to change and warp a lot sooner than the law does, and not always for the better. If we restrain ourselves on the Internet then maybe authorities won't see the need to attempt to restrain us. The freedom that is relished so much on the Internet may in fact be increased with just a little self-control.
About the Author: Daniel Punch