In the last 30 years of personal computing, undoubtedly thousands of software companies have existed. But because of changing technologies, plenty of them have shut their doors for good. Other businesses merged or were absorbed by other companies.
In some cases, the products these companies created are completely off the market, or at least no new products are being released. However, if the product was good, chances are, it's probably still in demand.
If a company was lucky enough to be bought out by another company, the new company may not always put the energy in to marketing an older product that wasn't really theirs in the first place. After all, they have their own titles to market.
With the Internet, you'd think you'd find many of these forgotten programs out there in cyberspace. In fact, online a term has evolved for many of these moldy oldie software programs: abandonware.
Abandonware is essentially a software program that has moved to a legal gray place. The company that owned and defended the rights and the licenses to a particular program is no longer in business, and no one is left to enforce the copyrights.
The Copyright Question
When a company goes away, the software it created ends up an uncertain place. Legally, it takes a long time for a creative work to officially end up in the public domain. Section 302 in Title 17 of the United States Code explains the duration of copyright (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap3.html).
Some abandonware sites claim that software is "abandoned" after five years, which isn't true. "Abandonware" isn't a legal term in any way, and many Web sites offering old software for download are providing aren't exactly doing it legally.
But realistically, most people don't have much use for 75-year old software. Unless the software is explicitly released into the public domain in writing by the copyright owner before it expires, legally the software is still covered by copyright law until the copyright expires.
What is Does Public Domain Mean?
When works such as music, movies, TV shows, or computer games enter the public domain, anyone can use it without permission. That is the reason some older Christmas carols are freely sung and distributed, while others require permission or royalties to duplicate them.
For example, because it went into the public domain for a few years, every channel on TV showed "It's a Wonderful Life" dozens of times because they didn't have to pay any royalties. Thankfully, the movie is now on less frequently because a company finally obtained the rights.
Some restaurants actually won't sing "Happy Birthday" even if they really want to because someone owns the rights to the song. Of course, it's somewhat challenging to bust every family celebration that sings Happy Birthday.
Along the same lines, it's not really likely you'll be hunted down and busted if you manage to "somehow" find an unlicensed copy of an old piece of software. Those who enforce piracy are looking for bigger fish to fry. They're after people downloading thousands of movies or cracking XBox games.
Examples of Abandonware
One of the most prominent examples of abandonware is a company called Infocom. In 1979, a group of MIT graduates decided to improve upon and market "Zork," a game that was popular on the school's mainframe network. It combined elements of the new "Dungeons and Dragons" role-playing game, with a computer program that let people explore different areas and take different actions.
The universe of "Zork" and other titles resonated with many players, who compared the game to an interactive book in which you read the text and your imagination paints a picture in your head. The business enhanced their game packaging with all sorts of materials, everything from fake postcards to fake cocktail napkins.
But then things started to unwind. The company discovered some limitations trying to make their big memory games work on smaller machines. So the original "Zork I" was actually just a third the size it was supposed to be.
Infocom also sank more money than it probably should have into an expensive business database program that didn't sell as well as they hoped. But probably the worst problem was the marketplace. Most of the early computer games had simple graphics (if any) to conserve memory.
The Infocom titles prided themselves on detailed, intricate storylines, minus all the cumbersome amateur graphics of other early games. But as processor speed increased and graphics power grew, new things were possible, including having static pictures with a game. As Sierra found out right around the same time, having the player control an animated character could be far more interesting than reading words about what the character is doing. In Sierra's King's Quest, you could watch animated characters walking around, fighting, picking up stuff, and dropping things (which is pretty much all you could do in early games).
Infocom couldn't match the animation, and in 1986, what was left of the company was sold to Activision. This company still holds the rights today. Various efforts were made to continue and adapt the role-playing franchise, and a few repackaging of "Infocom's Greatest" appeared, but even these games have long since disappeared from Activision's lineup. (Although, interestingly, some have been showing up as surprisingly high-priced auctions on eBay, but you'll still need an older machine to run them.)
The D&D Situation
A slightly different example of abandonware is the Dungeons & Dragons gaming franchise. It's different because the license to produce games set in this world has gone to plenty of companies over the years, and just about all of them have gone out of business in some way.
In this case, most of the products by all the different companies have gone the way of the dodo, but great efforts have been made to keep the license from joining them. Atari actually is the current licenseholder. The company took back the license from Black Isle in 2004 after its parent company Interplay was behind on paying licensing (and other) fees. Interplay had licensed the product through a company called Avalon, which also was running into financial difficulty.
In one of Interplay's final SEC statements, it spelled out specifically what would happen to the Dungeons license plus any projects in progress. If you're wondering, projects such as Fallout 3 and Baldur's Gate 3 went to Bethesda Softworks. The planned multiplayer universe is "still being evaluated as a potential revenue source."
So what do you do if you missed buying Fallout 2?
Yes, you can find in online at one of the many abandonware sites out there. But legally, you're on your own, and we don't want to know. Or you can wait for a very, very long time for the copyright to expire.
Links for More Information on Abandonware:
Copyright law: http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap3.html#302
Links to a lot of Abandonware on Wikipedia: http://www.answers.com/topic/abandonware
Open Abandonware Directory Category - http://dmoz.org/Computers/Software/Abandonware/