Section 1201 of US copyright law has been a thorn in the side of game preservationists for years. That’s the section that forbids bypassing DRM, which has resulted in many games being lost to time. Restrictions on local games have eased in the past, but online games were still in danger of vanishing. In the most recent copyright review, museums and other archival institutions have finally been given the go-ahead to archive online games as well.
Enshrining DRM in law has been an ongoing problem for consumers and anyone interested in keeping old technology working. Luckily, the law allows for the Librarian of Congress to issue exemptions to copyright law every three years. The current update also allows consumers to bypass DRM in order to repair their electronics. On the gaming side, efforts by San Francisco’s Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (The MADE) and other organizations helped get online games included in the exemptions.
Most games these days include an online component. Sometimes that’s just a server connection for verification or live-updated quests. Then, you have games like MMORPGs that are played entirely online with other people. When a developer decides to drop support for a game with online components, regardless of their purpose, the game ceases to exist. Even if you’ve got a local copy, it won’t work without the server. Now, museums, libraries, and other archival institutions will be able to break DRM to keep these games working.
There are several important caveats, though. This is not a license for anyone, even a museum, to make games publicly available with a hacked server. The archived games must be accessible only on the eligible group’s physical premises. If a game needs an active server component, as in the case of a game MMORPGs like Star Wars Galaxies or Asheron’s Call, the archiver needs to acquire the server code legally. That means the developer would have to willingly hand it over, and most won’t be doing that.
The MADE founder Alex Handy has expressed his approval of the decision, but he notes there is still much work to do. Circumventing the DRM on the server or local copy of the game helps archive abandoned titles, but server code is still difficult to obtain. Many companies would rather let a game die forever than donate the code for archival, but hopefully, that will change.
Now read: Nintendo Sues to Shut Down 2 Huge ROM Sites, Non-Profits Want DMCA Exception to Preserve Abandoned Online Games, and New Australian bill could outlaw VPNs in bid to stamp out Hulu, Netflix ‘piracy’