I see that Is it legal to download ROM images from shared or internet archives? has entered the CV queue.

Do we want legal questions on Retrocomputing? We have this issue on Stack Overflow all of the time where people post questions about the legality of something marginally software related, and most of the time I end up closing them as off-topic, as we aren't lawyers or support for [your favorite company].

Should we take the same approach here?

  • The Windows 95 question is not about the law. It is about the functional workings of how a specific vendor distributed software. This seems reasonably on topic for Retro. – user12 Feb 16 '17 at 16:44
  • @jdv Yeah, I think I'm going to remove that from this meta question because it is really different than your average "legal" question. – JAL Feb 16 '17 at 16:48

The answer to this specific Meta question is, generally, going to be "No."

But that is not what is really being discussed here, at least from my point of view.

The QA that spawned this meta discussion so late in the day was prompted by a real-world sub question in an existing Retro discussion. People are going to come to Retro with questions and confusion about the general notion of downloading images for personal retro-computing reasons.

In general, these people do not need a lawyer's answer for the question at hand. Just like over on Photography SE, you don't need to be a lawyer to answer "do my photos belong to me" or "should I get a release form signed" (both typical and well-answered questions over there). Yes, we should defer to a legal expert when discussing specifics, and such answers are encouraged to say this. But many of those questions related to copyright can be answered well enough for the answers to have utility for the audience, now and into the future. Again, this is true for Retro as it is for Photography and other SE sites.

The purpose of guidelines is not to collect a bunch of criteria with which to beat people with. The purpose of guidelines is to support the notion of useful questions and answers that are relevant to our interests.

We should be promoting useful QA that serves the needs of the community, not getting tied up in knots over categorizations. At the heart of this discussion is the question "is this QA good for the community, and does it serve the community?" Does it address a specific concern, and can it be addressed in a sufficiently specific manner?

That is, while in general legal questions (especially those that have a strong regional component) are probably not on-topic for Retro, a general question about how the Retro community might gain access to copyrighted material is on topic. Even if it is a special case, we should always be wary of categorization scope creep.

In conclusion:

  • Generally speaking, most questions that hinge on the legalities of the hobby are going to be off-topic.
  • That being said, the great majority of such questions are going to be variations on a theme.
  • The theme is going to be variations on "Is it generally legal to download and possess commercial software that appears to abandoned?"
  • These questions are going to be common. They are also very straightforward to answer because of the nature of the international law at play.
  • Because of how a huge majority of countries have signed onto the law, it is pretty easy to provide a general, global answer: "Generally, no."
  • Almost every SE site where the interest intersects with copyright have similar questions with similar answers.
  • If you are going to downvote on Meta at least post a comment about why. – user12 Feb 16 '17 at 19:31
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    I wouldn't get too upset by downvotes on Meta. Nobody is required to justify their votes. Although I agree it would be nice to see a reasoned contra-argument to your perfectly valid points. – Chenmunka Feb 17 '17 at 8:31

I do not believe legal questions should be on-topic. Laws vary across the world, and one answer for one country many not apply somewhere else. I also don't believe multiple answers for each country where copyright law differs would be constructive.


I'm going to slightly disagree with what appears to be the consensus. It is perfectly possible to answer the question of whether retro software in general can be downloaded legally. The short answer is "no". The longer and more nuanced answer would be pretty much exactly like tofro's answer here.

There's also the question of specific software. For example, I need to download a copy of the Sinclair Spectrum ROMs. I was able to find a statement from the copyright holder that stated it was OK to do this for non commercial purposes. Another example: when thinking about doing a PDP-11 emulation, I found out that Hewlett Packard (current owners of what used to be Digital) have a retro programme, which if you sign up, allows you to use PDP-11 software (operating systems mainly) for hobbyist purposes.

I don't know what other site these questions would fit. At Law SE, they could obviously answer the generic question, but I doubt if anybody there has ever researched the options for downloading a copy of RSTS legally.

There's a second argument for not accepting legal questions and that is the one of liability. If an answer we give is wrong and somebody gets sued, we may find ourselves in court too. Personally, I don't believe it would ever come to this especially with an IANAL disclaimer but IANAL, so I might be wrong. If this is a concern, don't mince about pretending legal questions are off topic, be honest: "we can't take the risk that we might get sued".


Given that there exists Law.SE where different jurisdictions are accommodated, I would suggest that that would be the first place to go to post such questions.

While we at Retrocomputing can answer How do I install my licence? type questions, I think we would just be distracted by legal arguments.

The particular question that you have linked is too old to try to migrate.

Your bonus question, I would say is not related to the law at all. It asks why a particular licencing model was adopted. The only real answer to which would have to come from Microsoft.


Let's face it:

The cases where we have explicit permission from the copyright holders of retro software are maybe much less than 1% of the available software (Obviously varies between age and make of software). Retro computing will always operate in some sort of grey legal area. If we'd in all cases "go by the book", we'd just do nothing or write all of the software from scratch.

The legal situation, however, is quite clear: In most countries, not having a proof of license or explicit permission makes any use of old software illegal. That basically says "Retro doesn't work without accepting the fact that you might be doing something illegal" and better stay away from it if you want to be a lawful citizen.... Not very encouraging in case someone is looking for a new hobby.

Fact is, that most of us live quite happily with a situation that the original copyright holders may no longer be around or have lost interest in pursuing their copyright. I have, in the past, tried to contact known copyright holders of retro software to try and convince them to release the SW into the public domain. Understandably, about 95% of the contacted didn't even bother to answer.

To sum it up: I don't think this is the right place to discuss copyright issues. One reason being the above, another the fact that most of us are no lawyers - in some countries (mine included), giving legal advice over the internet could, even for the layman, but much more for the professional be subject to further liabilities and legal implications which we all want to avoid.

  • Your argument, leads me to the same answer to this Meta question in general, but the opposite in terms of the test question this is intended to apply to. Your second graf is a perfectly reasonable answer to the question posed. So, while I might agree that in general such questions are off-topic, the fact is people will come here and get a fast and accurate answer to the general question. It will be the same answer found on similar hobby SE sites, but tuned for the audience at hand. – user12 Feb 16 '17 at 19:00
  • Yep. And that answer says: "There's no 100% legal way to retro compute". This is definitely not encouraging people into the hobby. It simply leads to endless discussions with people who will not accept their hobby in the gray areas of legality. – tofro Feb 16 '17 at 19:03
  • I fail to see your argument. Many things are illegal or in a legal grey area. It is an absolute fact that there is rarely 100% legal ways to do many things. However, when someone in the hobby comes here because they've been told there is some 24-hour proviso making it legal to grab a game, we can help by providing useful information. I'd argue this is exactly the right sort of encouragement. – user12 Feb 16 '17 at 19:07
  • Basically, I don't accept that we shouldn't state a useful fact of the hobby because it might scare someone. – user12 Feb 16 '17 at 19:16
  • My main point is: To all possible questions around legality, there will be only one single answer: "It's most probably illegal, but maybe you won't be caught and prosecuted" - That is not very helpful, so where's the point in asking... – tofro Feb 17 '17 at 14:24
  • It's not hard to legally purchase second-hand computers and software. I strongly disagree with your statement that it'll always operate in a legal grey area. Emulation, maybe (though even then copyright will expire eventually), but surely not people who use only original equipment? – Muzer Feb 22 '17 at 10:31

I don't think we should have legal questions here. I honestly don't know why someone would come to a community website looking for legal advice. No more than I would treat a medical condition from a Wikipedia article.

Not to mention the laws are different in every country. Plus, giant corporations can sometimes have laws changed (looking at you Disney).

So legal questions really just seem out of scope for this site.

  • Of course people will come here looking for answers about whether it is legal to use software-xyz. Where else would you naturally go to get informal answers to this question except a community site full of people for whom the question must already have arisen. – JeremyP Jun 1 '17 at 10:00
  • @JeremyP of course they will. But by doing so they are seriously putting themselves at risk based on the collective knowledge of people that are probably NOT lawyers. Sure, there could be a few legit lawyers in the group but you would be assuming they know what they're doing. My point is, never take sound legal advice from a bunch of people that are not lawyers and do NOT have your best interest. If you need REAL legal advice, hire a lawyer. We live in a world where billion dollar companies sue 11 year old girls....I'm not taking any chances. – cbmeeks Jun 1 '17 at 12:43
  • I don't think they are seriously putting themselves at risk. If the generic upvoted answer is "no it is not legal in general", or the specific answer for a piece of software provides evidence i.e. a link to the licence agreement, there is little or no risk. – JeremyP Jun 1 '17 at 14:14
  • @JeremyP "Excuse me group...is it legal to play MP3's I downloaded off the internet from a file sharing site on my expanded Amiga?" Group: "Sure it is! I do it all the time! It's fair use!". Two weeks later....BAM...lawsuit from Big Evil Corporate Empire for copyright violations. – cbmeeks Jun 1 '17 at 17:07
  • The answer to that one is obviously no. Why would you answer yes and would you expect upvotes or downvotes with the answer given in your comment? – JeremyP Jun 2 '17 at 9:10
  • @JeremyP that makes no sense. I don't expect anything. – cbmeeks Jun 2 '17 at 12:24
  • If you say "you can download mp3s from file sharing sites" the answer is obviously wrong. You'll get down voted and probably a stream of comments telling you it is wrong. This is no different to any other question/answer. – JeremyP Jun 2 '17 at 13:10
  • @JeremyP my example was just that...an example. I used "file sharing question" as just an easy example. The POINT was that asking for legal advice from a group of people which, more than likely, have NO legal background CAN BE risky. So, I wouldn't recommend it ever. You seem to think that the accumulative knowledge of strangers on the Internet outweighs the risks of EVER leading an unsuspecting or naive individual to do something that would actually be ILLEGAL. Therefore, my opinion is that legal questions do not belong on this site. Not to mention the laws are SO different everywhere. – cbmeeks Jun 5 '17 at 13:23
  • Asking for any kind of advice from a bunch of people you don't know can be risky. For example, somebody was asking about PSU testing the other day. Suppose they follow the advice of the accepted answer (which did include a warning about the dangers of electrocution) and they kill themselves? I see no reason why answers of a legal nature, similarly qualified with a warning are any more risky than answers that tell you how to poke around inside live electrical equipment. – JeremyP Jun 5 '17 at 13:30
  • @JeremyP Anyone that would poke around mains electricity based on group opinion is just as stupid as anyone that would take legal advice from a group of "experts". They're both risky. They're both stupid. It's one thing to take group advice on what is a good travel destination. But it's a COMPLETELY different level of risk for taking advice on legal issues, electrical issues, mountain climbing, etc. Basically, anything that can land you in court, jail or the morgue. And if you think taking legal and electrical advice is the SAME THING then you are sadly mistaken. – cbmeeks Jun 6 '17 at 12:42
  • Are you saying that questions on mains PSUs are are just as risky or not? You seem to be contradicting yourself in your last comment. My point is that, just because taking our advice might be risky, for the questioner does not mean we should be frightened of giving it with appropriate warnings. If they then choose to ignore the warnings, so be it. – JeremyP Jun 6 '17 at 13:49
  • @JeremyP go back and re-read my comment. It's pretty obvious and clear what I said. – cbmeeks Jun 6 '17 at 14:15

I also do see a need to include legal questions.

The pivotal point here is related to retrocomputing.

  • A question if it's legal to play some MP3 of {insert the latest one hit wonder of American Idol here} on an Amiga is not retrocomputing related at all, but about useage of current content.

  • A question about connecting some 1990s device with restrictive usage issues ('only to be used with system XYZ') can be on topic.

  • While a question about the legal situation of software imports in the 1970, or since when software could be copyrighted at all, is clearly is on topic.

While the second on needs to be justified on a case to case base - the OP of the question must add why it's relevant - I do see the last one as another facet of our interest and a quite important.

Laws, regulations and there interpretation are changing over time. So a situation that's clear today might not have been the same 20 years ago and vice versa. I still remember about all the problems to import microcomputer software to Germany in the late 70. Not because there where any laws prohibiting it, but because the tax office had no fricking idea how to legaly handle an Apple Panic disk.

Since most answers to the OPs question up to now revolve around Copyright, we should keep in mind that todays usage and interpretation hasn't fallen from heaven. After all, in the 60, noone could even imagine that something like code could fall under copyright. The legal fights establishing this have been running for decades. Especially the anglosaxon system of case based law is a great source for questions, isn't it?

And last but not least, the changes that brought us todays legal framework arround computers haven't been implemented all arround the word at the same time (if at all), not in the same way. So I see plenty of room for retrocomputing related law question, with a well defined context.

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