Strange Case of Lost Software

Lost media has existed since the beginning of time: paintings, sculptures, old silent films… When only a single copy of an objet d’art is made, it’s no wonder it may get lost forever.

Illustration for article titled Strange Case of Lost Software

One might’ve thought things would be different with the advance of the Internet. Now, it seems, everything is mass-produced and digital. However, it doesn’t really stop the media from getting lost. Heck, there’s an entire Wikia dedicated to modern movies, games, and music that have disappeared.

Let us delve into this world of media… that is impossible to find.

Like Tears in Rain: Software that is No More

It seems as if it doesn’t matter how important or useful a piece of software or media is because it can get lost anyway.


How about spreadsheet software that once was considered to be better than Excel? Gone.

A completely free virtual private network (VPN) with wide platform support and 45 servers? As this review aptly puts it, “not available anymore”.


The first ever social network? You bet it was shut down.

What is the reason for it? Is it a competition? However tempting it seems to say so, I think not. As the example of Javelin above shows, a superior product can be lost while the inferior one can remain.


Perhaps it was a merger or an acquisition that made a product unviable to support, or perhaps it was the developer’s lack of enthusiasm or real-life problems. Whatever it was, that product doesn’t exist or isn’t accessible anymore.

It’s really hard to wrap one’s head around how anything digital may get lost today. They say that once something is put on the Internet, it is impossible to delete, and in most cases, it’s true.


But what happens if there’s no maintenance for a website something is hosted on? True, there are web archives… but they do not contain the entirety of the Internet.

So, if a website goes down (for example, because of its domain has expired, which is very common for old websites that nobody visits, thus there being no incentive for the owner to renew it), its contents will be gone too.


It is especially true for online games. Many multiplayer videogames are inaccessible now because of their servers having been shut down years ago. In such a case, even if some people still own physical copies of the game, there is still no way to play it.

And maybe those games weren’t very good. But still, the fact that it’s impossible to find them, let alone play them today makes them something of the forbidden fruit. Or rather, a discontinued fruit, if you will.


Abandonware, or How Nobody Wants to Get Paid

There also exists a polar opposite of lost media—abandonware. In its case, it’s impossible to find not the media itself, but its creator.


Also known as “orphan works”, abandonware is generally protected by copyright. However, the rightsholder doesn’t care about this product for whatever reason: maybe the company went out of business or was acquired by another one. Either way, there is no support offered for the product.

And when the rightsholder doesn’t give a damn about a piece of media, it can transfer from the “abandonware” category into the “lost forever” one. According to, even classics such as Asteroids and Ms. Pac-Man could’ve vanished for good if not for one person salvaging them from a dumpster.


The worst part? Since abandonware is still copyrighted, it is damn hard to save it because sharing it is technically considered piracy. Yes, the copyright holder doesn’t stand to profit from the product anymore (otherwise they would have supported it, wouldn’t they?). But you still aren’t allowed to distribute it free of charge.

Personally, I do not deem it piracy, I deem it preservation. Think about it: without the developers’ support, such software is doomed to oblivion. And since no money is being made from it anyway, it’s not exactly unethical to share it. On the other hand, legislators usually think otherwise, even if people are seldom charged with copyright violations for abandonware. So, I suppose, it is for everyone to decide whether or not the proliferation of orphan works is acceptable.


Sometimes, though, copyright holders save the fans from this moral dilemma by rereleasing abandonware for free. I can only express my hope that more developers and rightsholders follow suit.

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