How to stop video games being made unplayable once support ends

The Pirate Party has long played an important role in fighting the worst excesses of copyright in the EU. For example, when a major copyright update was being discussed, the Pirate Party MEP Felix Reda wrote an insightful and practical report on what needed changing. Most of his recommendations were ignored in the final EU Copyright Directive, but at least someone was fighting on behalf of hundreds of millions of EU citizens, whose views are generally ignored when it comes to copyright law. The outgoing Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer is also active in this area. He has started a new initiative that aims to tackle a widespread problem, and one that is made worse by outdated and inflexible copyright laws:

Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer has asked the European Commission for an opinion on the decision by French computer game manufacturer Ubisoft to make the popular computer game “The Crew 1” unusable from April 2024. In Breyer’s opinion, this measure could violate EU law.

The main problem is that if a company abandons a game, the latter remains covered by copyright, and is thus locked down for decades more. Even if people are willing to take over the running of a game at their own expense, it is not possible to do that without the permission of the company involved, which rarely grants it. As Breyer notes, there is a wider initiative centred around the Youtuber Ross Scott, formed to oppose the destruction of video games. There is a dedicated site, Stop Killing Games. As that explains:

An increasing number of videogames are sold as goods, but designed to be completely unplayable for everyone as soon as support ends. The legality of this practice is untested worldwide, and many governments do not have clear laws regarding these actions. It is our goal to have authorities examine this behavior and hopefully end it, as it is an assault on both consumer rights and preservation of media.

The site has an extensive FAQ that tries to answer questions about what is happening, and what can be done to stop games being shut down. Here’s the key idea:

What we are asking for is that they implement an end-of-life plan to modify or patch the game so that it can run on customer systems with no further support from the company being necessary. We agree it is unrealistic to expect companies to support games indefinitely and do not advocate for that in any way.

The other answers make clear that this is a rather complicated approach:

If a company has designed a game with no thought given towards the possibility of letting users run the game without their support, then yes, this can be a challenging goal to transition to. If a game has been designed with that as an eventual requirement, then this process can be trivial and relatively simple to implement.

The problem here is that copyright limits what people can do with the code of the game, or even how they can come up with compatible workarounds. A far better solution to the problem would be to change the law so that copyright in the game would cease when support ends. There would be no loss to the publisher or authors, since the game was going to be shut down anyway. But this would allow communities to emerge that could work together to keep games going in some form. There is no need to specify how that would be done, only that it would be legal to do so.

As the FAQ hints, this issue is part of a much larger problem:

While videogames are primarily just for entertainment and not of much consequence, the practice of a seller destroying a product someone has already paid for represents a radical assault on consumer rights and even the concept of ownership itself. If this practice is not stopped, it may be codified into law and spread to other products of more importance over time, such as agricultural equipment, educational products, medical devices, etc.

Whether or not people care about video games, they will surely care if the software in their heart monitor or insulin pump is simply abandoned by companies. All of these digital products should automatically enter the public domain once a company stops supporting them. That should include things like ebooks, music and videos: if a company no longer wishes to supply them, it should lose the right to stop others from doing so. Arguably it should also apply to physical versions such as books, images and audio when publishers and creators cannot be traced. That would solve one of the many problems with copyright’s absurdly long term: the fact that it creates “orphan works” still in copyright, but no longer available from an official supplier. The Pirate Party’s new campaign is a long way from addressing the orphan works problem, but it is a start.

Featured image by Stable Diffusion.

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