One thing the Vega campaign has again showcased is that people who love old games also happily pretend that basic copyright law does not exist. To anyone wondering about how Vega was going to legally bundle 1000 games with its fake Spectrum, the response was generally “Who cares?” or “All those games are public domain now anyway.” It’s a curious idea that old games alone have somehow fallen out of copyright in only about 30 years, just because people want them to.

As a thought experiment, imagine equivalents in other media. Try reprinting a bunch of books from the 1980s into a single volume and selling it in stores. Do you think you’d get away with it? Or what about 1000 music tracks from the 1980s, bunging them on a hard drive and selling that? Again, you’d be mad to think this could be in any way legal. But people think this about games.

It’s either ignorance or entitlement that results in this belief. The facts are simpler though: unless a company or individual officially releases their IP into the public domain and without caveats, subsequent distribution of any kind is simply not legal. For example, even though hundreds of ZX Spectrum games are legally available via World of Spectrum, the rights for doing so are usually single-site, meaning you can’t suddenly create your own similar site and host the same games. And even when old developers say “Do whatever you like with my old games,” that first assumes they actually own the rights (some won’t) and secondly often comes with the addition of “But you can’t resell them in any form—they must remain free”.

The Vega team is reportedly aware of this issue, and I would be disappointed to say the least if it bundled 1000 games without securing rights to all of them—a mammoth task, but one the team promised rather prematurely. For fans of old games, I’ll concede that individuals are unlikely doing any harm by downloading and playing a copy of Deathchase on an emulator, and at any rate, if you’re strongly guided by morals, you can just buy legally distributed versions of classic games you love when the opportunity arises; but it’s another thing entirely when a commercial product dances with the concept of abandonware, and people think that’s perfectly fine, largely because they have rose-tinted glasses glued to their face and a fondness for Jet Set Willy.