Copyright laws need updating to reflect the huge explosion in software demand in the past 25 years. These laws also need updating for the sake of innovation and job creation using already existing media. Abandonware, as stated earlier, is software that exists, has a user base and is enjoyed by many, but has unknown or dissolved ownership.
Abandonware is a topic loved by many old time gamers. Classic video games such as PacMan, Tetris, and other lesser known hits as Escape From Monkey Island all fit within the category of Abandonware. Ask any involved gamer from ten to fifteen years ago if they remember the above game titles and you will have an easy two hour conversation on your hands. However, companies have let ownership of these titles lapse.
In the case of Escape From Monkey Island, its owner LucasArts was bought out several times, and then eventually dissolved leaving ownership of Monkey Island completely ambiguous. No one owns the rights to Monkey Island since the owners of the original copyright disbanded, and no one is able to purchase the copyright for exactly the same reason.
This is problematic from a business standpoint. Let us say that company C decides they would like to revive Monkey Island on a cell phone platform. Company C hires a handful of programmers, reverse engineers Monkey Island, adapts it to a cell phone, and then markets and sells the newly adapted software to regain some of their capital. Company C is now obviously liable for losing all income from this product in a lawsuit due to lacking explicit ownership of the content. Company C however never had the ability to purchase ownership because of the dissolution of LucasArts and companies involved that have since ceased to exist. So this title, and literally tens of thousands of others sit with ambiguous ownership, waiting for action by intelligent representatives to update our laws and allow for innovation and adaptation by motivated developers.
There is a simple solution which presents itself in the case of actual property. Imagine one has a used car lot. The business folds, let’s say due to unpaid property taxes, the owner leaves, and sitting on the lot is a bunch of used cars that belong to a company that has ceased acting as a business entity. In this case an auction is held. Everything contained on and owned by this car lot is brought up for auction. Every hammer, lot of nails, used car, television, or hair ribbon is put up for sale for interested parties, and whatever does not sell is garbaged.
This analogy can be directly applied to copyright law when a company is dissolved or has let copyright fees lapse. An index of the company’s associated software can be gathered, and a simple copyright auction can be performed by the state. This would generate additional income for the state and allow for consistent innovation and adaptation of existing software. Any copyrighted pieces that did not sell at public auction would enter the public domain (similar to the garbaging example with the used car lot), and allow for consistent open-source development.
Having a system of regular copyright payments would also encourage companies to continue marketing their software. Copyright payments would act as a form of penalization for companies that did not successfully market an existing title, or adapt it to another medium, and would open the floodgates for many companies already interested in doing just such a thing.
This system of regular copyright payments would help eliminate the problem of ambiguous ownership in outdated software and allow for new markets to develop. This would create sources of revenue for developers and the state, and allow users to continue playing the games they love on any new mediu, console, or device.