Up until February of this year, there was a cool Web site called Home of the Underdogs. It was a massive archive related to computer games of the 1980’s and 1990’s — the now-forgotten small-budget “underdog” games from before the Windows 95/98/XP era. I regard the early ’90’s as the Golden Age of computer games, when titles such as X-Com, Master of Orion, and Pool of Radiance occupied way too many of the hours I should have spent studying.

Home of the Underdogs featured reviews of those classic games, but I would say its primary purpose was to provide free downloads of games that were no longer available for sale — so-called “abandonware.”

Abandonware

Abandonware is software that is still protected by copyright, but whose copyright holder is no longer in business. The software is in a kind of legal limbo where no one can sell it. Downloading abandonware is very probably a violation of copyright law. Yet it was certainly possible to download abandonware from the old Home of the Underdogs Web site.

I do not recommend anyone go out and download a bunch of abandonware willy-nilly. It’s probably not legal. What I really think is that copyright laws should be changed so that once the copyright owner goes out of business, the copyright expires (unless it was sold or legally transferred).

Now, if you happened to have bought the software at one point, and lost or thrown away the original disks, it becomes a lot less clear-cut whether downloading a new copy is legal or not. Technically, it’s still against copyright law, and if the original publishers were still in business, they would tell you so. However, one could make a case that downloading a replacement copy falls under the doctrine of Fair Use. I’m not a legal expert, and I’m not aware of this ever being tested in court. Suffice to say, downloading a replacement copy is possibly legitimate — but if you get into legal trouble for doing so, don’t tell the judge I told you to do it!

New Life for Old Software

Why would anyone want to download 20-year-old games that run on MS-DOS? Simple: they’re fun, and there is a wonderful piece of software called DOSBox that lets you run classic games (or other programs) on a modern computer. Once I discovered DOSBox, I suddenly wished I hadn’t thrown out my old floppy disks for all those great games.

Son of the Underdog?

As I mentioned earlier, the original Home of the Underdogs site went permanently offline in February, 2009. But all is not lost! A new, replacement site is now online and growing. Its address is www.hotud.org.

Update: Legally Obtaining Classic Games

There is at least one company that still sells classic, 20th century computer games: www.gog.com. If you know of any others, please leave a comment.