Archive – Copyright And Distribution Permissions

Historical information

Please note this content is from the original WoS site, and may no longer be relevant. If you have any queries, please contact us.

Retro-gaming – emulating original arcade machines and later consoles and other gaming machines – has gained increasing interest by fans.
Since it constitutes infringement of copyrights (to name the basic level), retro-gaming has long been an underground operation. Partly so because it started with pirating software in the days that these machines were active, resulting in the large stacks of software available in people’s collections today. Ever since the machines themselves were phased out, as technology went onward, this software is slowly getting the status of antique.

Emulation in itself is nothing new; a browse through history shows that mankind has tried to emulate almost everything. Most of these emulations were harmless for anyone and even useful for the world.
However, when it comes to emulate copyrighted (registered) hard- and software, things are different altogether. Again, this has been done numerous times in the past, often resulting in lawsuits from the legitimate owners of said copyrights.
Even though emulators for computers have always begun by fans as a means to preserve our cultural heritage, this does not make things right; not even if the emulators are presented for free. So long as the copyright holders do not agree with emulations, emulation is considered an act of piracy.

The way retro-gaming has always been is that emulators are created and spread, then software that runs on it is converted and spread. This (correctly) suggests that the emulators – hardware being emulated through software, including any firmware/ROM with the OS – and the software to run on them are two separate issues, with separate copyright procedures. For example, if emulation of a machine is allowed (in the case of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum for example), this does not grant permission to distribute the software to run on it of course, although the fair use policy allows one to convert the software he bought to run on the emulator, in private.

Because people must have known that copyrights still applied, the scene was kept underground for years. Then things went wrong: greedy people thought it an excellent area for fast money. They created emulation CDs and sold these for an affordable price. Strangely, emulation CDs have even been in shops for the past years! No wonder that retro-gaming is matched with the warez scene.

With the coming of a worldwide distribution network, the Internet, distribution of software grew on a larger scale, going from underground to open archive sites. More and more sites popped up where people made their favorite software titles available for other fans, for free. Almost everyone simply forgot about piracy and considered distribution of the software a natural thing to do.

At the end of 1998, emulation got under threat: the software houses who still hold the copyrights for the software have had quite enough of piracy. We have seen a couple of the major retro-gaming sites being shut as demanded by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), who changed their name to Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in 2003, and finally the topic of copyrights pops up again, after over a decade of silence.

Can we blame the copyright holders for their actions? I dare to say no!
Ageing of software does not make it Public Domain.

Common misconceptions

Lots of people seem to think that FTP sites like WoS are quite acceptable. Sure, it’s nice and all to be able to relive your childhood, but we’re nowhere near acceptance yet.
In the past, the emulation scene was mostly an underground operation, where people would exchange software through obscure BBSes or e-mail.
It probably wasn’t until 1993-ish (after the FTP site NVG was brought to life and the newsgroup comp.sys.sinclair was formed) that the Spectrum emulation scene set off big time.
NVG originally only stored software for which distribution permission had been granted by the respective copyright holders. They asked a number of rights owners for permissions. Based on the responses and nonresponses, they got a clear impression that their concerns were felt ridiculous and their questions not worth bothering about. Accordingly, they shifted to distributing everything except where they got a believable “no”. People soon forgot all about the copyright issues. Not all people, mind you, as some continued the task to request permission from the various software houses.
Now that the copyright issue is suddenly in the headlights again, through the stand of the IDSA/ESA, let’s take away the most common misconceptions:

People only download images of games they bought the original version of

Of course they don’t.

Note: there is no law saying you can (only) download what you once bought, but it’s an often heard excuse.

Nearly all Spectrum software was put in the Public Domain anyway

This is not even slightly correct. So far only a limited amount (some 10%, a couple of hundred programs) of the software houses have given permission. Most of the houses from ‘the Speccy times’ were bought out by VIE, Infogrames, and the likes and these have not ever replied to the question whether distribution was okay. Now it turns out these big companies are represented by the ESA, I highly doubt they will ever give the permission.

This doesn’t apply to non-USA countries

It does though. All countries that signed the copyrights act work together on this one. Almost all European countries fall in this category. Also, the ESA is currently setting an example. Other like organizations in the rest of the world may follow soon.

We have these 24-hour licenses and Abandonware rules

No we don’t. Both these terms were invented by sitemasters to cover up their illegal activities. They are myths and not acknowledged by the law.

Where is the retro-gaming scene heading?

I find it very alarming to see the direction in which the retro-gaming scene is going now. All of the sudden we see campaigns to legalize retro-gaming.

We see a lot of discussion about laws and so-called “good” reasons why a software house must abandon its rights.

Shouldn’t people have thought about this years ago, before illegally distributing the property of software houses?

Even worse, there are campaigns that try to force software houses into releasing their property into the Public Domain, some of which don’t fear using methods of threat and boycotts. Shouldn’t it be the other way around, where we should be pleased to get permission instead of enforcing it?

A look at the Internet seems to suggest that only the ZX Spectrum ‘scene’ is currently involved in contacting copyright holders.
After several years (since 1997) of actively addressing the issue to software houses, I find that most of the houses I contacted are more than happy to allow their property being distributed freely.

The list of permissions is growing quite rapidly as a matter of fact.

So, instead of threatening software houses, I dare people to contact them on an open basis and just ask them.
Sure, it’s getting exceedingly difficult to find a contact address for each copyright holder since most of said software houses have folded in the mean time, but there’s no reason to stop. So many ways have been left unused. We should join forces to track them down and ask.

When reflecting on the past years since the IDSA/ESA started raiding sites, all seems to have gone quiet again and people are continuing their activities as if nothing ever happened. Sites containing illegal games are popping up as before and hardly anybody seems to care.

Worse yet, sites that do respect the wishes of copyright holders and refrain from carrying illegal games, are attacked with hate-mail. I’ve seen several sites disappear for this reason, as their webmasters got too disappointed in emulation to (publicly) carry on with their hobbies.

Are people simply too frightened to talk to the copyright holders and is all this stirring up just a smokescreen to hide behind? I should hope not!

Meanwhile, the IDSA/ESA is trying to waltz over anything and everything in order to meet their annual target. They turn out to be nothing but a loose cannon, who don’t investigate anything, but just run a (20 lines perl?) script that scours the Internet for them. It’s fed with a highly vague (for better matching) list of modern titles and if more than a certain small amount of “matches” is found on filename alone, an automatic cease and desist letter is sent – again without any human checking whatsoever.

Effectively, they commit all of harassment, libel and even perjury in their holy quest to crush emulation, and when the falsely accused reply to the allegations, they run like hell, try to cover their tracks and simply don’t respond.
They’re fast losing any credibility they (think they) have and more and more ISPs choose to simply disregard their messages as spam.

Good facts

Amstrad, the current owners of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, allow free distribution of the ZX Spectrum ROMs (see the message from Amstrad as posted in comp.sys.sinclair for the details), and endorsed WoS at its 7.5 year anniversary.
Therefore, emulation of the machine is not illegal (as opposed to nearly all other computers that are emulated these days).
This gives us an advantage in that it actually makes sense for publishers to allow distribution of their software.

What are we after exactly?

What we are after is permission from the software houses to have their Spectrum software in the archives for free distribution.
We do not want them to relinquish their copyrights.

Why would any software house want to do this?

There are actually several good arguments why a software house would allow free distribution of their old software:

  • If people are still interested in their old software, it proves that they must have made an excellent product to begin with.
  • If people enjoyed their old software, they are generally more likely to buy new software from the same software house.
  • If the software house would do a remake of the program, people who already know and love the old version will be the first to buy the remake.
  • Since the software cannot be bought anymore, tape wear-off will result in the loss of the software forever.
  • It’s free advertising.

What have we reached so far?

A very limited amount of people (like me) is actually working on contacting each and every single software house to gain free distribution rights for their software.

Alchemist Research succeeded in getting several distribution rights, most notably the Gremlin and Lerm titles. Damien Burke, Brian Gaff and Lee Tonks maintained a list of companies that allow free distribution of their Spectrum software (from 1994 to 1997), on Damien’s site until the site ceased to exist.

The World of Spectrum has also always had a strict policy on copyrights and picked up the project to contact copyright holders in 1997, resulting in a lot of goodwill in the industry.

The results are published on this site and still resolve at a reasonable speed. Please check

How can you help?

Please help us find out

  • Which label belongs to which company,
  • Which company bought out which other company (i.e. who owns the copyright today?),
  • Which company doesn’t exist at all anymore and has an undefined copyright status,
  • Contact addresses for software houses and individual programmers/artists.

I especially need help on software houses outside of the US and UK (e.g. German, Spanish and Italian software houses). If you live in such a country, please get in touch.

An important issue is that the software stored in the archives should be as close to the original as possible. At least the copyright notices must be intact, which were usually printed together with trademarks on the loading screens. What we really need to do is get perfect copies (no snapshots and certainly no hacks!). Also, most archives tend to simply store their files as a bunch of anonymous zips.
Acknowledging copyrights is the first step to have a chance of getting permission.

If people who own the copyright to commercially published Spectrum software who read this message could let me know their status, I’d be grateful.

So far, I found that most of the larger companies did not respond. This does not necessarily mean that distribution of their software is silently allowed. Therefore, what needs to be done is ask again and again, until we either get permission or a message saying that it is not allowed. As several of the houses are not reachable through e-mail, it will take some money (stamps) and lots of time.

Notice that some copyright holders make a difference in distribution on CD and distribution on the Internet. For example, the Zenobi Software catalog is allowed to be distributed from WoS and The TZX Vault archives, but not on a CD.

Other sources of information