What Is Abandonware and Is It Illegal to Use It?

Abandonware Featured

You may have heard the term “abandonware” floated around the Internet. But what is it, and is it legal for you to download it? Let’s explore abandonware and the laws behind it.

What Is Abandonware?

Have you ever wondered what happens to software when the company who made it no longer cares about it? Perhaps the software is really old, and the company makes no effort to re-release or remaster it. Maybe the company that made it has long since gone under and no longer works on the software.

This is what abandonware is. Abandonware is when the original owner no longer cares for a piece of software. This is important because it creates some interesting thoughts about legality.

For instance, let’s say you pirate a game developed and published by companies that no longer exist. Can you get into trouble? What about downloading a game that an existing developer released a long time ago but you can no longer purchase officially?

Is Downloading Abandonware Legal?

When it comes to downloading abandonware, it’s a weird morally-gray case. There are arguments for and against the distribution of abandonware, but is it legal in the eyes of the law?

Abandonware Legality

First, just because the software is no longer actively supported does not mean it suddenly loses its copyright. It’s still owned by the company that made it in the first place. If there is no company left, it becomes an “orphan work”: a copyrighted product with no attributable owner.

So technically, downloading abandonware is illegal. The question is, who will actively chase you because of it? If the original developer is long gone, there’s no one to file a case against your actions. Meanwhile, if the company does exist, they can file against you but may choose not to put resources into defending a product they stopped selling years ago.

In a nutshell, downloading abandonware is illegal, but it’s rare for a company to actually chase you over it. In some cases it’s even a victimless crime.

Arguments for and Against Downloading Abandonware

As we covered above, there is a debate over whether it’s okay to download abandonware. Let’s cover both sides so you can make up your own mind if downloading abandonware is moral.

Abandonware Debate

Arguments for Distributing Abandonware

There are enthusiastic supporters for preserving old software. They hate to see programs through history get forgotten and fall into obscurity. As such, they support any method that keeps the memory alive and allows users to see the history of computing.

Distributing abandonware is one way to achieve this. If you locked down people distributing abandonware, you run the risk of that software being lost for good. By allowing people to download it, you help preserve it and keep it around for generations to come.

Arguments Against Distributing Abandonware

Critics of downloading abandonware say that allowing it to happen harms potential sales of future products. In the video-game scene, we’ve seen a wave of releases of older games.

For example, you can purchase a NES-like console that emulates games, and the Nintendo Switch has NES and SNES games you can play online. Some companies also remaster old games and re-release them, which happened recently to the old Crash and Spyro games.

As such, critics state that abandonware should be shut down to allow companies to re-release or remaster classic games. If people download those games as abandonware, they’re less likely to purchase a re-release, the critics claim.

The Gray Area of Abandonware

Abandonware is a weird topic, as people have opinions on whether or not it’s moral to download it. While it is illegal to pirate abandonware, a company isn’t likely to chase downloaders unless they intend to remaster or re-release the game.

Do you think downloading abandonware is ethical? Let us know below.

Simon Batt Simon Batt

Simon Batt is a Computer Science graduate with a passion for cybersecurity.


  1. This quandary can’t be settled in a “one rule fits all” kind of way. You said as much in the article. Simply put, the question “Do (I) think downloading abandonware is ethical?” can easily be answered with “It depends on the program in question.”

  2. I remember a program Named “Music Match Jukebox”, that I used all the time with my own Cds. I even purchased the unlimited use license! Then they sold out to Yahoo, and Yahoo dropped it! Now I have unlimited future use of an “Orphan’ that is no longer supported. I really like this program, and used it all the time, to make my own mix CDs, from my own media, but it only worked with XP, and I have never found any other program that even came close to matching its features.

  3. companies can re-release all the abandonware they want.

    how about we let ANYONE re-release true abandonware if they like. If there’s an orphan project, I say it’s fair game for anyone to reverse, modify, re-release, whatever.

    I’d like to see a re-release of leisure suit larry where he gets into some truly x-rated situations and depending on his choices, suffers the social consequences. this could highlight the stuggles faced by gay and trans people, sex-workers, drug users, and other people marginalized on moral grounds as well as providing a fantasy world for players to explore parts of their psyche that might be repressed by the same moralistic society that punishes those of us who are not.

    as a child, I was extremely disappointed by the lack of depth in that game. I managed to figure out the answers to those boomer-ass questions only to find out the game didn’t have anything remotely filthy enough to excite me. I’d like to add all the shit I iimagined might be in there.

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