Many older games, like those that were built before the time when the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is today, are playable so long as you can figure out how to install them. This can be no small feat in some instances although emulators like DOSbox do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. However for slightly more modern games, especially those that relied on DRM or activation servers in order to work, getting them installed is only half the battle. Quite often those activation servers have long since shut down, leaving you with few options if you want to enjoy an older title. Typically this meant turning to the less than legitimate sources for a cracked version of the main executable, free from the checks that would otherwise prevent it from working. This practice however is now legitimized thanks to a ruling by the Library of Congress spurred on by the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
The ruling allows gamers to circumvent any measures of abandoned games that would prevent “local play” of a copy that they legally purchased. Essentially this means that if a central server is shut down (or made inactive without explanation for 6 months) then you’re free to do whatever you need to in order to resurrect it. Considering so many of us now rely on Steam or other digital distribution platforms this ruling is critical to ensuring that we’ll be able to access our games should the unthinkable happen. It also means that more recent abandonware titles that had central DRM servers can now be legally resurrected. For many of us who still enjoy old games this certainly is a boon although it does come with a couple caveats.
Probably the biggest restriction that the Library of Congress placed on this ruling was that multiplayer services were not covered by this exemption. What that means is that, should a game have a multiplayer component, creating the backend component to support it is still not a legal activity. Additionally should the mechanisms be contained within a console the exemption does not cover modification of said console in order to resurrect the game. Whilst I can understand why circumventing console protections wasn’t included (that’s essentially an open season notice to pirates) the multiplayer one feels like it should have been included. Indeed a lot of games thrived on their multiplayer scene and not being able to bring back that component could very well mean it never gets brought back at all.
The exemptions come as part of the three yearly review that the Library of Congress conducts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In the past exemptions have also been granted for things such as jailbreaking phones and the fair use of sampled content from protected media. There’s potential in a future review for the exemptions to be extended which could potentially open up further modification capabilities in order to preserve our access to legally purchased games. However the Entertainment Software Association has been fervent in its defence of both the multiplayer and console modification arguments so it will be a tough fight to win any further exemptions.
These exemptions are good news for all gamers as it means that many more titles will be playable long into the distant future. We might not have the full freedom we need yet but it’s an important first step towards ensuring that the games of our, and future generation’s, time remain playable to all.