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EFF wants to legalize bringing 'abandoned' games back online

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Some video games become totally impossible to play when their developer shuts down their servers, so the Electronic Frontier Foundation wants everyone to have the right to tweak their games to get them running again. It's filed a petition with the Library of Congress and the US Copyright Office asking that modifying a game be considered fair use when it's done so that a game can be made playable again after a developer has "abandoned" it and stopped running servers needed to allow gameplay. That would allow gamers to continue playing games longer after their release and for archivists and researchers to work with games far in the future without worrying about running afoul of copyright laws.

For when activation servers no longer activate

The EFF's proposal is particularly relevant to games that regularly check in with activation servers to ensure that a pirated copy isn't being used. Once those activation servers aren't online, even gamers with purchased copies won't be able to play them without finding a workaround. That's often done today, but the EFF says that the practice is covered in legal "uncertainty." The EFF also wants gamers to be able to alter games when multiplayer matchmaking services go offline. That way, they'd be able to continue playing the game on a third party's server even after the game's creator has stopped offering online support for it. Notably, this rule would not apply to MMOs, like World of Warcraft once it goes offline, because a significant portion of those games' content is stored online, presenting what may be larger issues of fair use. Instead, this proposal applies to minor code changes that involve reworking or circumventing often superficial server check-ins.

All of that is critically necessary to historians who might be interested in looking at and preserving these games years after their release. But even in the immediate sense, an acceptance of the EFF's proposal could be a big deal for gamers. As the foundation points out, multiplayer game servers are often taken offline just years after a game's release, generally as sales for a game wane and it's no longer economical for a developer to maintain them. This dramatically limits how a game can be played, making it evident why gamers might want to tweak the code so that they can get back online.

The foundation argues that considering this fair use would not hurt the market for the game, particularly given that the game would, by definition, be abandoned at that point. The EFF argues that, if anything, this might actually increase the value of a game because gamers will know that they'll be able to play it for a longer period of time. There's no guarantee that the government will accept the foundation's proposal and consider this fair use, but the proposal certainly speaks to what will only become a growing frustration for anyone looking to play a game as more and more of them begin relying on online authentication.