US Library of Congress grants DMCA exception for preserving online games


It’s a win for the good guys, at least if you figure the good guys are on the side of preserving video game and MMO history, and we do: The Video Game Museum announced today that it’s finally able to legally preserve all video games, even the online ones.

“The US Copyright Office has granted our DMCA exemption to allow us to preserve online games! All of that hard work has paid off! Big thanks to UC Berkeley, David Petchey, and James Clarendon who testified on our behalf.”

Some backstory: Way back in 2015, we began reporting on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s successful petition seeking exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to allow video game preservationists the authority to break DRM protections to make abandoned or ancient games work again. At the time, it didn’t apply to online games. By 2017, however, the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) began pushing for exceptions for online games too.

That led to a flurry of excitement earlier this year at the prospect that some dead MMOs that belong in a museum might actually get there. In stepped the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) to argue that MADE’s goal wasn’t scholarly research; it actually characterized MADE as a “clubhouse where people gather to play games,” suggesting its goal is “enabling public gameplay, rather than preservation for serious scholarly purposes.”

The founders of the MMORPG genre were not amused. Neither were its most dedicated fans. “Speaking as a designer, I’d rather my game be played for free than never be able to be played ever again,” Raph Koster of Star Wars Galaxies fame wrote, noting that if dead games were to make so much money and bring in so many players that the companies repped by the ESA would notice, they likely wouldn’t have been shut down in the first place. “Much of my work is basically gone and what survives is all altered. Preservation matters.”

So, does this mean you can go out and put up a City of Heroes or Matrix Online emulator free and clear under no threat of legal action? Well, not unless you’re a museum/archivist doing so for provably preservative purposes or you’re content to play with just yourself. Here’s the relevant bit from the filing in the Library of Congress made public today.

“(i) Video games in the form of computer programs embodied in physical or downloaded formats that have been lawfully acquired as complete games, when the copyright owner or its authorized representative has ceased to provide access to an external computer server necessary to facilitate an authentication process to enable gameplay, solely for the purpose of:

(A) Permitting access to the video game to allow copying and modification of the computer program to restore access to the game for personal, local gameplay on a personal computer or video game console; or

(B) Permitting access to the video game to allow copying and modification of the computer program to restore access to the game on a personal computer or video game console when necessary to allow preservation of the game in a playable form by an eligible library, archives, or museum, where such activities are carried out without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage and the video game is not distributed or made available outside of the physical premises of the eligible library, archives, or museum.”

Of course, that’s not going to stop existing emulation hosted out of the country. It’s nevertheless a huge step forward for the legal preservation of MMOs!

Here’s a recap of the whole ordeal:

Massively Overthinking: MMOs belong in a museum! - Let's talk game preservation. We've been covering MADE's attempt to convince the government to tweak its interpretation of the DMCA to basically allow museums, academics, and institutions of learning to…

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