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Let's take some old popular at a time but abandoned game: WorldRacing/HiOctane/Constructor/any other. Say I with a team want to revitalize said game and bring it to year 2011 without major changes and then work on improving it (e.g. add multiplayer). Also it is important to keep the game's spirit, assets, story, music, so basically the game remains the same, but gets better (e.g. adapting DOS game to Win7).

My questions are from "How is it usually made?" area:

  • How do I purchase rights to the title and the game's assets (graphics, sounds, music, storyline). Whom to contact and what purchase options are possible? Is it possible to obtain source codes, design documents.
  • How to deal with various platforms, is it terms of contract saying which platforms are allowed to be used if there are several?
  • How to deal with localizations in other languages, are they to obtain from other companies or do they belong to master publisher?
  • What could be the reasonable price for said games in example?
  • Is it possible to pursue owners to release the game as open source?

Remember Heroes of Might and Magic was owned by New World Computing, but later changed its owner to Nival. I'm interested in that sort of process.

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You ask your lawyer on how to make a contract, then you ask the game owners if they are intersted in selling, then you use former knowledge about contracts to tell them how things are gonna be set up. –  Blub Aug 12 '11 at 11:41
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To rephrase - I'm asking about how it's made, what options are there, possibilities. What important and whats not. –  Krom Stern Aug 12 '11 at 11:45
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The details of such contracts are something that you'd need to ask a lawyer about, and what options and possibilities there are depend heavily on the game and who currently owns what. –  thedaian Aug 12 '11 at 12:12
    
If the copyright holder thought it was valuable enough to be worth their time (and lawyer dollars) to release it in the future, they're probably already shopping it around. Unless you're putting up a ton of money up front and basically taking on all the risk. –  Tetrad Aug 12 '11 at 17:05
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@Tetrad: That is, assuming they know they own the rights, and assuming the company is involved in game development - e.g. a lot of random corporations bankrolled stuff leading up to the crash in the 80s, they probably still have the rights, but also probably care so little you could wave a couple hundred/thousand under their noses if you really wanted it released. –  user744 Aug 12 '11 at 20:33

2 Answers 2

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Byte published a high-level summary of the "abandonware" situation in 2001, which answers many of these questions. However, it's dealing with the case where you simply want the company to re-release the software or release it into the public domain. If you intend to license it and resell it, you will definitely need a lawyer to draft up a contract to protect your commercial rights, at some point in the process.

How To Do It

You don't need to be an attorney or work at a software publisher to bring new life to old software anyone can help make it happen. The hardest part is often finding the right person to ask. If the company that published the software has been sold, you'll have to find out who bought it: A little Web research goes a long way here.

Once you find the company, it's time to approach their attorneys. Call the company's main office and ask for the legal department, or write to the company. The person you talk to may not have heard of the software you're referring to, so be ready to provide as many details as possible, including who published it, in what year, and for what platforms.

Also, know what you want: Asking for a license to distribute the software for free on your web site may be reasonable to many publishers. Or perhaps you'd like the publisher to release the software into the public domain an option that will be distasteful to many publishers who are unwilling to completely give up rights to their work, no matter how old. Don't expect an answer right away even once you find a helpful individual, it may take months for them to give you an answer.

To answer your specific queries:

Whom to contact and what purchase options are possible?

You contact whoever owns the copyrights. This can actually be very tricky to track down in the case of some old games, and unfortunately, there is no general way to handle it. In some cases the paper trail may just be buried too deep, and you're SOL. For example, as described in the Byte article, the legal records needed to transfer the rights to MECC's game catalog are apparently gone forever.

Is it possible to obtain source codes, design documents. How to deal with localizations in other languages, are they to obtain from other companies or do they belong to master publisher?

They're assets like any other. These may have been owned by a different party to begin with; they may have been sold to a different party during liquidation; they may be lost forever.

Some things, like trademarks, may now be owned by entirely unrelated entities. If they're actually using them for their unrelated business, you probably can't get them at all.

How to deal with various platforms, is it terms of contract saying which platforms are allowed to be used if there are several? What could be the reasonable price for said games in example?

This depends entirely on your negotiating skill. You want to convince the current holders it's worth $0 to them, and that even $1 would be a great move on their part to let you remake the game on all platforms.

Is it possible to pursue owners to release the game as open-source?

Sure. Open source licensing is licensing like any other. If you have the rights, you can do what you want.

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OMG, you actually answered a legal question. :) +10 (well, +1 anyway). –  Cyclops Aug 12 '11 at 12:51
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Legal advice from a magazine that's a decade old... use a present day lawyer when it comes down to the real contract =) But it's a good place to start, for sure. –  Patrick Hughes Aug 12 '11 at 16:42
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This answer is not legal advice. I don't mean that in a in IANALTINLA-disclaimer-y way, I mean there's no advice concerning questions of legality in it. That's the kind of answer we should be giving for legal questions. –  user744 Aug 12 '11 at 16:59

You've asked a lot of questions here - let me cherry pick one of them.

How to deal with localizations in other languages, are they to obtain from other companies or do they belong to master publisher?

Localization is also one of those areas where it could be managed on a case-by-case basis.

Most companies I have worked with treat any localization work provided by the republisher (the localizing local publisher) as a slightly limited work for hire, meaning, the republisher probably has exclusive rights for the localized version while the republishing agreement is in effect. That said, if you acquire the rights to a product, you need to do proper due diligence and have your expectations incorporated into the agreement.

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