Games anti piracy bot fingers ZX Spectrum archive site

And worryingly, it doesn't sound like it was a mistake

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Hot on the heels (actually, earlier, but we only just heard about it) of yesterday's BSA robot busts OpenOffice story we have a doppelganger - a games antipiracy trawling operation with mesh so small we feel sure it must be in breach of European fisheries legislation.

The Interactive Digital Software Association last month sent a "Berne Convention - Demand for Immediate Take Down - Notice of Infringing Activity" to World of Spectrum, which is home of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum archive and also describes itself (maybe carelessly, considering how some phrases set robots' juices going) as "the largest on-line gaming center on the Internet."

The take-down, from one Robert L Hunter IV (perhaps something of a successful videogame series in his own right, and inhabiting the warm and friendly email address of dmca@idsa.com) fingers the following titles available for download as infringing "the rights of one or more IDSA members," and demands their immediate removal: "007, Barbarian, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Mario, Pac Man, Soldier Of Fortune."

An explanatory note for our younger readers. The 1980s Sinclair Spectrum has not exactly been current for a very long time, but lives on via emulators for numerous more current platforms. World of Spectrum provides an archive and information repository for Spectrum software, and although the actual ownership of games that might be up to 20 years old now can be murky (we recall it being pretty damned murky at the time), it is difficult to conceive of many people's lunches actually being stolen in the event of loose ZX Spectrum IP being available for download.

World of Spectrum owner Martijn van der Heide handles this as follows:

"We strive to gain permission for redistribution for all software in the archive from the original publisher, and if the publisher no longer exists, from the original author. We publish all such permits on our site, and where such permission has been rescinded by either the publisher and/or author, we comply and remove the affected titles from the archive. Our copyrights policy is available in a dedicated section of the site, the Copyrights section, at http://www.worldofspectrum.org/permits/."

We expect that the reappearance of 1980s games on mobile phones is causing some flurries for Martijn, as previously worthless stuff reacquires value, and the one-time claimed owners who're not in jail try to reassert their rights, but it's not clear that the IDSA's robot is looking specifically for Spectrum software.

Matter of fact, it's not looking for anything much specific at all. The letter helpfully explains how "infringing material" gets identified:

"The unauthorized copies of such game product[s] appearing on, or made available through, such site are listed and/or identified on such Internet site by their titles, variations thereof or depictions of associated artwork (any such game titles, copies, listings and/or other depictions of, or references to, any contents of such game product, are hereinafter referred to as 'Infringing Material'). Based on the information at its disposal on 2/7/2003 6:49:39 PM GMT, IDSA believes that the statements herein accurately describe the infringing nature and status of the Infringing Material."

Under the circumstances the only thing likely to apply as far as World of Spectrum is concerned is "their titles, variations thereof" - i.e., the robot is in the first instance going after anything with the same name as one of the the IDSA membership's products, or even with a similar name.

That said, Martijn van der Heide's explanation, and suggestion that the games referred to by the IDSA are false positives, quite possibly won't cut much ice with the organisation. Van der Heide reports that other emulation sites have been brought down by the IDSA (which boast of 35,000 successful exterminations), and the IDSA itself has already thought of emulation, as its FAQ reveals:

"The problem is that it's illegal to make or distribute software or hardware emulators or ROMs without the copyright or trademark owners' permission. Moreover, copyrights and trademarks of games are corporate assets that are sometimes sold from one company to another. The recent sale of the Atari games library to Hasbro Interactive is an example of such a transaction. But if these vintage titles are available far and wide, it undermines the value of this intellectual property and adversely affects the copyright owner.

"In addition, the assumption that the only games involved are vintage or nostalgia games is incorrect. In fact, there are now more and more programs available that emulate current game systems such as the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation. In other words, emulator/ROM piracy is affecting games that are still on the market.

"Finally, in the current highly competitive market, a top quality game costs $1.5 million or more to develop, and double or triple that to market. Software publishers must generate a meaningful return on their investments in this intellectual property if they are to continue to meet the growing demand for technologically advanced products. The suggestion that some piracy is benign undermines respect for the intellectual property rights on which software companies are built. Piracy of any kind on any scale erodes this foundation."

So actually this bot is a lot more chilling than the BSA bot. The BSA bot was lighting up if it thought something looked like MS Office, and the BSA admits that was a mistake. The IDSA bot is picking up anything that looks like a game that might be owned by one of its members, and the IDSA itself doesn't see any hard distinction between current IP and a 20 year old game for a defunct platform, where you're highly unlikely to be able to buy software or platform any more, and where you're highly unlikely to be able to run it other than under emulation.

Anti-piracy is kind of simple if you see it this way. Somebody, once, owned practically everything World of Spectrum has for download. Since the games were current the rights will have gone every which way, but quite a lot of the rights will be somewhere in the vaults of several IDSA members, even if they themselves won't be aware of it until they go through the old filing cabinets. They're not making any money out of them, unless they're proposing to retread them for mobile phones, but that is not the point - anybody thinking "some piracy is benign undermines respect for... intellectual property rights." Exterminate...

Given that in at least some cases the IDSA will be legally right, the best shot is probably to try to shame the membership into stopping it beating up harmless (gosh, did we say that? We must be communists) museums and archive sites. And if they're not sufficiently shamed at this juncture, then having driven game downloads underground they'll be going after emulators. Because if you can get an emulator for a Nokia (which you can) you're not necessarily beholden to any software house retreading its IP for mobile phones. ®

Related link:
IDSA email and van der Heide's response

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