U.S. Copyright Office to Explore Making Some Video Games Public Domain

The U.S. Copyright Office is looking into an exemption that may for the first time make some video games exempt from copyright infringements.

Among a long list of new proposed rules regarding electronics, there's one section in particular that has old-school video game fans really excited. Proposed Class 23 would lift copyright exemptions for video games that require online server support but for which such servers are no longer active or maintained by the developer. The argument goes that since certain games require a server to be played as intended, the lack of a server renders them unrecognizable to players.

Take a game like Chromehounds, for instance. It was a war simulator that allowed you to build custom warmechs through interactions with other players. There is a single-player version, but the appeal of the game was definitely in the multiplayer campaigns. Sega shut down the servers in 2010, rendering the game merely a shadow of its former self.

If a copyright exemption could become available for abandoned, server-dependent games, it would allow other companies the right to host players on their own, public-domain servers. Games like Chromehounds with small but dedicated followings would be able to once again see life for the people who enjoy them.

For serious video game aficionados, this could be a serious step forward in the overall games preservation movement. Video games as an art form have a shelf life little better than bananas. Games from the late '70s and early '80s need specific machines to play them unless emulated, and unless they're fairly popular and continuously ported to next-generation marketplaces for sale, a great many titles simply get swallowed up and lost in the past.

Some, like game collector, actor and director Joe Grisaffi, are hoping that if the U.S. Copyright Office adopts Class 23, it could move us one step closer to seeing older titles no longer generating revenue for their creators declared public domain to be remixed and reimagined openly by video game creators and filmmakers.

"I would be thrilled if many old video and computer games became public domain," says Grisaffi. "For years, I've been thinking about the possibility of directing a movie based on games I grew up playing. One that comes to mind is Online System's Mystery House, a simple whodunit graphic adventure that captivated me for weeks. The Wizard and the Princess is another one. Those already have basic stories. The old arcade games, on the other hand, are open to interpretation as far as story goes. I'd love to make a comedy western based on Exidy's Bandido. With great scripts, these old games could become great movies. Video game movies don't have to suck."

The U.S. Copyright Office is allowing public comments on the proposal through May 1.

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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner