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February 13, 2014
Talking Seriously About Games and the Public Domain
GOG - Good Old Games
is an electronic games-sales store. It has a wide variety of titles but is best known for its namesake: older games that long ago left retail shelves and may be hard or impossible to find from other retailers. Even online retailers need a supply of keys, which make up the inventory of an electronic games store, and there's not a lot of incentive to buy and hold onto keys for old games that people may never buy. GOG, though, lives in the long tail.
Recently, John Walker wrote for RockPaperShotGun an editorial about GOG and included his opinion that games ought to enter the public domain after some time such as 20 years. There are a lot of good reasons for this: demand is low, but old games are inspirational to new gamers and new designers. Games are usually the property of studios or corporations and the people who did the work to make the game aren't going to see any income from long-tail sales anyway. There's an argument that sales can still bring in some money to help maintain servers for online multiplayer, but the vast majority of games don't need these things or can run on donated hardware. Releasing a game to the public domain wouldn't obligate anyone to keep paying monthly bandwidth bills.
Despite the sensible nature of this - 20 years in gaming is approximately forever, for one thing - there has apparently been some kind of uproar, which Timothy Geigner took on for techdirt this week.
Geigner points out the ways in which Walker's proposal appears both sensible and even-handed and highlights some of Walker's responses to his critics, whom he calls both "astronomically false" and "gruesomely inaccurate". It's fun to read and I suggest you read both Geigner's summary and Walker's originals.
Walker touches on several of our common themes: what motivates creative people, what is the purpose of copyright and how has its current maximalist implementation strayed from that purpose, etc. To take a page from the economist's book, it's a fundamental error to treat non-rivalous goods the way we treat rivalrous goods. The creation of a process for releasing old games into the public domain after a long time would enrich our society without impoverishing creators.
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