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posted by martyb on Saturday December 01 2018, @08:00AM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the how-many-copies-of-each-will-he-sell? dept.

Al Lowe reveals his Sierra source code collection—then puts it on eBay

Al Lowe, one of Sierra On-Line's seminal game creators and programmers, has been sitting on a pile of his original games' source code files for over 30 years, fully convinced that they are worthless.

Gallery: Taking a look back at some choice Sierra gaming moments"I’m 72 years old, and none of my kids want this junk!" Lowe said in an interview with YouTube personality MetalJesusRocks (aka Jason Lindsey, himself an ex-Sierra developer and a friend of Ars). "Does anybody?"

Lowe is about to find out, as the developer has begun posting eBay listings for his entire source-code collection. (You read that correctly. The whole shebang.) The sale's opening has been accompanied by a MetalJesusRocks video (embedded below), which offers a 12-minute tour of backed-up files, original game boxes, original hint books, and more.

As of press time, Lowe has listed auctions for the first two Leisure Suit Larry games' source code, with bids already climbing (both well above the $400 mark after they went live). Lowe indicated to Lindsey that more games' code will follow on eBay, and this will likely include a stunning treasure trove: Lowe's other Leisure Suit Larry games, King's Quest III, Police Quest I, and Lowe's games based on Disney franchises Winnie The Pooh and Black Cauldron.A truly graphic adventure: the 25-year rise and fall of a beloved genre

What's more, Lowe also has original backups of his complete programming pipeline, including the Sierra utilities that converted plain-text, ASCII commands to interpreted code. When pressed about how curious users could peruse these disks' files, Lowe plainly responds, "It's a text file! Put it in Notepad."

[...] Lowe's listings clarify a few things: first, he has not tested any of these disks, and second, owning these disks is not the same as owning the legal rights to freely or commercially distribute their contents. "Realize that, while you’ll have my data as of the day of Larry 1’s creation, you will not own the intellectual property rights to the game, the code, the art, or anything else," Lowe says in the LSL1 listing. "Nor do I. The IP rights were sold over and over again, until they are now owned by a German game company."


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  • (Score: 3, Funny) by suburbanitemediocrity on Saturday December 01 2018, @08:07AM

    by suburbanitemediocrity (6844) on Saturday December 01 2018, @08:07AM (#768577)

    I remember laying on the floor covered in sweat because we had no AC dicking around with my computer for a couple of hours trying to get Kings Quest to run. I only had an amber monitor so had to imagine the colors.

    On second thought, that really sucked. You cn keep the game

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @08:27AM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @08:27AM (#768580)

    Perhaps no code and definitely no rights.

    • (Score: 2) by linkdude64 on Saturday December 01 2018, @10:58AM (3 children)

      by linkdude64 (5482) Subscriber Badge on Saturday December 01 2018, @10:58AM (#768599)

      Just a pile of soppy carbon - so what if it happened to be identified as your mother who died in a car crash? Clearly there's no meaning to be found.

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by bzipitidoo on Saturday December 01 2018, @02:26PM (2 children)

        by bzipitidoo (4388) Subscriber Badge on Saturday December 01 2018, @02:26PM (#768622) Journal

        Mothers can't be copyrighted, nor duplicated.

        • (Score: 3, Touché) by linkdude64 on Saturday December 01 2018, @11:20PM

          by linkdude64 (5482) Subscriber Badge on Saturday December 01 2018, @11:20PM (#768758)

          Either you're missing the point, or I am. I took OP to mean that owning the disks means nothing because you can't copy them and don't own rights. So having the original source code to a game you love has no sentimental value at all - operative word being value? He's saying it's a pile of old disks, and that they aren't special because you can't copy or duplicate them. Mothers, you can't copy or duplicate either, as you said, yet you would be facetious beyond the pale to state that there is an equal lack of sentimentality to be had regarding uncopiable disks and mothers.

        • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Monday December 03 2018, @06:14PM

          by Freeman (732) on Monday December 03 2018, @06:14PM (#769220) Journal

          Yet.

          --
          Forced Microsoft Account for Windows Login → Switch to Linux.
  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @11:34AM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @11:34AM (#768602)

    I've got hard drives from that era that won't read. I doubt floppies would fare any better.
    He really should have backed them up to P2P

    • (Score: 2) by kazzie on Sunday December 02 2018, @08:56AM

      by kazzie (5309) Subscriber Badge on Sunday December 02 2018, @08:56AM (#768855)

      Hard drives include the mechanical gubbins and read/write heads, as well as the magnetic media. Plenty to go wrong. Floppy disks, on the other hand, use standardised drives to read them. If one drive's faulty, just use another. Only the magnetic media itself is important.

      The two key issues are whether the disks' magnetic coating has decomposed (in which case it'll start being scraped off by your drive's heads when you read it: you'll only get a few attempts to back it up), or whether they've been corrupted by stray magnetic fields.

      I've got some thirty-year-old 5 1/4 floppies that I put in a BBC Micro recently. One had suffered water damage and is a write-off, but the others are still working fine.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by MrGuy on Saturday December 01 2018, @01:58PM (18 children)

    by MrGuy (1007) on Saturday December 01 2018, @01:58PM (#768616)

    It's super cool he has this. But it's questionable that he has the legal right to sell this. And it's questionable that the buyer can do anything with this.

    He might have written the code, but it's almost certain that the copyright was assigned to and owned by Sierra Online. (You can't sell a game if someone else owns the source...) It's possible (depending on how copyright registration was done and renewed) that the copyright passed into the public domain. But it's very likely it's still retained by the owner and passed to successors which, according to Wikipedia, would be Activision. Activision has actually used the Sierra brand in recent memory, and they have been known to get litigious.

    Under these circumstances, I'm sorta surprised eBay would even take the auction - arguably, this is stolen property, and less arguably, it's software piracy (again, unless this passed to public domain).

    And, for the putative buyer, you don't get any IP rights that the seller didn't own. So, it's likely you wouldn't be allowed to share this code with others. You wouldn't be able to post excerpts online. You wouldn't be able to edit this code to "remix" the games involved. You wouldn't even have the right to compile the code and play the game yourself.

    I'm generally against MAFIAA type IP enforcement, and corporate overreach claiming ownership of clearly non-job-related code written on your own time. But this is literally code written for work during work hours. The fact that it's a cool part of gaming history doesn't necessarily make it legal to sell.

    • (Score: 2) by takyon on Saturday December 01 2018, @02:25PM (4 children)

      by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Saturday December 01 2018, @02:25PM (#768621) Journal

      The Sierra brand has been kicked around for a long time. Will the current owners of the brand or specific games even notice infringement occurring? If the code does get onto torrent sites, it's game over and out there forever. Not that it is really going to hurt anyone's corporate bottom line at this point.

      Any retaliation against Al Lowe, if possible, would be widely noticed. He would get money for his legal defense. Hopefully, he would be sent a C&D during his auctions, before it escalated to that.

      Finally, it seems questionable that the contents of these disks have actually survived. Maybe if they are delivered to Internet Archive, they might have sophisticated recovery equipment they could use. Or maybe some of the disks are just duds and that's that.

      --
      [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 [soylentnews.org]
      • (Score: 2) by bzipitidoo on Saturday December 01 2018, @02:31PM

        by bzipitidoo (4388) Subscriber Badge on Saturday December 01 2018, @02:31PM (#768626) Journal

        If the source code was compressed, then, yeah, a few percent of unrecoverable bytes and you're screwed, But source code is small enough even in the days of floppy disk storage it may not be compressed. In that case, it should be possible to fill in a lot. If 90% of the data is still present, a good bit of the other 10% could be extrapolated.

      • (Score: 5, Informative) by SomeGuy on Saturday December 01 2018, @03:08PM (2 children)

        by SomeGuy (5632) on Saturday December 01 2018, @03:08PM (#768630)

        Finally, it seems questionable that the contents of these disks have actually survived

        I read and archive floppy disks all the time. Higher quality, well stored disks will still be perfectly readable. However, lower quality, poorly stored disks can fall apart easily. There are various methods to improve the odds of recovering data from a damaged disk, such as cleaning, swapping jacket, lubricating, and "baking" the disk cookie. Tools like the Kryoflux or SuperCard pro will preserve every last piece of flux so a damaged image can be re-analyzed without the need to constantly re-read the physical media.

        But certainly an unexperienced person should not just stick random unprepared floppy disks in a drive. A single piece of dirt in a disk jacket can rip the oxide off of a disk.

        I suspect these particular disks would fairly easy to read. The bigger question is do they still contain what they claim to contain? Too often, original disks were re-formatted and re-used for other purposes. Normally I would make a joke about re-use to store their EGA porn, but in this case that is what it is!!! :)

    • (Score: 4, Insightful) by SomeGuy on Saturday December 01 2018, @02:44PM (5 children)

      by SomeGuy (5632) on Saturday December 01 2018, @02:44PM (#768627)

      You are allowed to sell any physical item that you own. People sell crufty hand-labeled user made duplicate disks all the time. But such a sale does not necessarily transfer any license to use the software or to obtain support.

      In this case he is quite clear that the IP rights are not transfered with these disks. The disks are just for collectors who want something to put on a pedestal so they can say they own a piece of history.

      If a seller were under an NDA of any kind then the seller could see legal trouble, but I'm guessing this is simply not the case here.

      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by MrGuy on Saturday December 01 2018, @05:12PM (3 children)

        by MrGuy (1007) on Saturday December 01 2018, @05:12PM (#768664)

        You are allowed to sell any physical item that you own.

        Ay, there's the rub.

        If I own a blank ream of paper, of course I own it and can sell it.

        Now I take that ream of paper, put it in a photocopier, and photocopy J.K. Rowling's manuscript for her upcoming book. Can I still sell it? Or does putting someone else's intellectual property on it no longer make it fully "owned by me"? I can't separate the "thing I own" (the paper) from the "thing I don't own" (the copyrighted story owned by the author). I've commingled my property with someone else's, which means I can no longer consent to sell it.

        A floppy disk with someone else's data on it is not appreciably different (except, of course, I can wipe it and then return it to the unencumbered state).

        • (Score: 3, Informative) by SomeGuy on Saturday December 01 2018, @06:44PM

          by SomeGuy (5632) on Saturday December 01 2018, @06:44PM (#768690)

          If you are selling it as scrap paper then yes. If you are selling it as a book, no, or at least not really.

          Practically speaking, the way it works with floppy disks on eBay is that any user-created copy is only worth the value of the media. Usually around $0.50-$1.00 per disk depending on physical quality. This works out and nobody frets over licensing because when buying a software title, collectors want factory original disks, not crufty copies. Someone who buys a large floppy disk lot is most likely going to reformat any crufty copies anyway.

          In some cases, possession of a factory original disk, manual, and possibly serial numbers, does represent proof of license and support. Read through the 9000 page EULA to be sure. Such titles can sell for quite a bit, especially if a company needs CYA licensing proof to use some legacy system.

          In general, licensing and support are irrelevant as most collectors just want to put things on pedestals rather than production use, and any support has long since expired.

          Every now and then someone will try to sell a crufty copy with a hand written label asking an absurd amount of money. These people are simply idiots.

          Now this case is a little different because they are not just selling a disk - they are selling a historical artifact with "provenance". Provenance is something that most eBay items lack. In other words, it symbolically represents a historical event and you can prove who owned it, where it was, and how they used it. I mean, who wouldn't want to touch a famous person's floppy? :P

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @10:23PM (1 child)

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @10:23PM (#768743)

          It's not a problem. If the copywrite prevents him from making copies and selling them, this is irrelevant because this copy was made in accordance with copyright law for several reasons.

          The first reason: when he made it, it wasn't yet protected under copyright. It could be argued that per his agreement with Sierra the code was protected by copyright as he typed the characters, but even in that case any copies made pursuant to the performance of his job were with consent of the copyright holder at that time. We don't discuss these things when we write code because it's presumed (correctly) that writing the code we were asked to write was permissible.

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 02 2018, @03:00AM

            by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 02 2018, @03:00AM (#768799)

            The thing is he admitted that he walked into his job with a box of blank floppies and copied it.

            It is probably a 'work for hire' sort of situation. It would be like me going into work and making a copy of my code at work. Then taking it home. Then selling it. They would take me to court and sue me into oblivion. Rightfully so too. It is their code. They paid very well for it.

            Here is the rub though. Will anyone in the german company that now owns it give a flip about it? It is their code though. What Al is doing is fairly legally 'grey' (not really it is fairly established what happens). The only difference here is the amount of time it took him to do it. Plus it is for something kind of historically interesting. But more than likely not his. The first couple of games maybe are his. But the rest are probably not.

      • (Score: 2) by crafoo on Saturday December 01 2018, @11:00PM

        by crafoo (6639) on Saturday December 01 2018, @11:00PM (#768753)

        Perfectly said. You may sell whatever you own.
        You may not transfer rights, or more specifically, the right to make copies. This is called _copyright_.
        Such a basic concept that has been intentionally muddied, obscured, and perverted by corporations and business wankers with malicious intent.

    • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Saturday December 01 2018, @04:41PM

      by Immerman (3985) Subscriber Badge on Saturday December 01 2018, @04:41PM (#768652)

      I think you're over-reaching there.

      You're almost certainly right that the copyright belongs to Activision or some other company, so you couldn't develop derivative games using the source, or even legally share copies with your friends or online, at least not beyond fair use excerpts.

      However, selling it is it's definitely NOT "piracy", because no copies are being made, and thus copyright does not apply. Same as if you sold an old Nintendo cartridge to someone - the copyright owner gets no say in that transaction.

      There's also no particular reason to believe his copies of the source are illegal, any more than you having office documents from an old job is illegal. Passing them on might be considered a violation of trade secrets, but unless he had a contract spelling that out it would likely be a tough sell, even if the company cared. Or still existed. Just because someone bought the copyright, doesn't mean they bought the full legal standing of the original company in disputes not involving copyright.

      What he's selling are historical artifacts, nothing more. And I don't see any straightforward way in which he or the buyer are doing anything illegal.

    • (Score: 2) by Arik on Saturday December 01 2018, @04:42PM (5 children)

      by Arik (4543) on Saturday December 01 2018, @04:42PM (#768653) Journal
      "But it's questionable that he has the legal right to sell this."

      Why?

      It's certainly possible it might represent a breach of contract for him to sell it, for which someone might sue the seller, but even if that turned out to be the case it shouldn't affect the buyer.

      "it's almost certain that the copyright was assigned to and owned by Sierra Online. "

      OK, so?

      Copyright prohibits distributing unauthorized copies.

      As long as he is the owner of the physical object he is selling, the fact that someone else owns copyright does not prohibit resale. Look up 'first sale doctrine.'

      "So, it's likely you wouldn't be allowed to share this code with others."

      Agreed, wholesale sharing would probably be a copyright violation.

      "You wouldn't be able to post excerpts online."

      Nonsense. Posting of excerpts for purposes of criticism and/or education is something else for you to look up, "fair use."

      "You wouldn't be able to edit this code to "remix" the games involved."

      Not quite correct - it's not the remixing itself where copyright law kicks in, but at the point of distributing the remix. However, for most people, this would probably make it not worth doing.

      "The fact that it's a cool part of gaming history doesn't necessarily make it legal to sell."

      No, but apparently he owns it, and that does make it legal to sell.

      Seriously, do you think used books are illegal too?
      --
      If laughter is the best medicine, who are the best doctors?
      • (Score: 5, Informative) by MrGuy on Saturday December 01 2018, @05:06PM (4 children)

        by MrGuy (1007) on Saturday December 01 2018, @05:06PM (#768660)

        Copyright prohibits distributing unauthorized copies.

        As long as he is the owner of the physical object he is selling, the fact that someone else owns copyright does not prohibit resale. Look up 'first sale doctrine.'

        ...snip...

        Seriously, do you think used books are illegal too?

        I suggest YOU look up the first sale doctrine, at least before you decide to be smarmy about it.

        The first sale doctrine is called as such because it requires there to first be a sale. If I sell an item (even one covered by copyright), I'm not allowed to restrict the buyer from reselling that specific copy of that item. I've been paid once, and I can't meddle in the resale market.

        That does not apply here. Because this source code has never been sold, the copyright owner did not offer it for sale, and the copyright owner has never been paid for this copy.
        First sale doctrine:
        Al buys a book, then sells the book to me.
        Al buys a copy of a videogame, then sells that same copy of the videogame to me.
        Al buys a blank floppy disk, then sells that blank floppy disk to me.

        But Al buys a blank floppy disk, copies his employer's IP onto it, then privately offers it to sale without his employer's knowledge or consent? Um...no. That's not how first sale works, because there is not "sale" to be the "first" that everyone else is shielded by.

        I go any buy a USB hard drive, then copy my employer's code onto it, then sell that hard drive on eBay. The fact that I owned the hard drive, or even that I wrote some of the code on my employer's behalf, doesn't make the transaction legal. The fact that I bought and paid for the blank USB drive doesn't make the transaction legal. Copyrighted material is being sold by someone who doesn't own it to a third party without the owner's consent. The buyer does not magically acquire the right to that copyrighted work just because they paid someone for it.

        This is not CLOSE to selling a used book.

        • (Score: 2) by crafoo on Saturday December 01 2018, @11:02PM

          by crafoo (6639) on Saturday December 01 2018, @11:02PM (#768754)

          Don't get angry. People are confused because they have been intentionally confused, mislead, and lied to by people with a vested interest in perverting and smashing our basic rights to what we own.

          Well said though.

        • (Score: 2) by Arik on Sunday December 02 2018, @09:01AM (2 children)

          by Arik (4543) on Sunday December 02 2018, @09:01AM (#768856) Journal
          "This is not CLOSE to selling a used book."

          It's very close to selling the original manuscript for a book however.

          If the author was not specifically required to surrender the original manuscript, it's his property, and if the book becomes (in)famous enough to make it worth his while then he's well within his rights to auction it off, under the first sale doctrine. It doesn't actually require a sale, sorry if the title confused you I didn't name it.

          (Of course it goes without saying that purchasing the original manuscript for 'the Shining' would not entitle you to distribute copies or derivatives, but I'll mention that anyway, because you seem particularly dense.)
          --
          If laughter is the best medicine, who are the best doctors?
          • (Score: 2) by urza9814 on Monday December 03 2018, @06:20PM (1 child)

            by urza9814 (3954) on Monday December 03 2018, @06:20PM (#769224) Journal

            If the author was not specifically required to surrender the original manuscript, it's his property

            Right. If you write a book, you generally do that on your own, and sell the rights once it's complete. So you can retain ownership of the originals if that's not specified in the contract. You're selling the IP rights to produce new copies, but most people wouldn't sell the original copy which already exists. So it exists, you own it, you didn't sell it already, so you can still sell it.

            But when writing software like this, when working directly for a company, it's a work for hire. You *never* owned the software which you wrote to begin with, therefore you have no right to sell it to anyone else. You already sold your rights to that copy before you even wrote it. You can't sell it again to someone else.

            • (Score: 2) by Arik on Monday December 03 2018, @11:05PM

              by Arik (4543) on Monday December 03 2018, @11:05PM (#769330) Journal
              As I said, it's possible his former employer might have a cause of action against him.

              It's unlikely they could make anything criminal out of it due to statute of limitations but maybe a clever lawyer would argue and ongoing conspiracy to conceal it and manage to make it work.

              Most contractual issues would probably also be 'expired' in one way or another after all this time, but you'd have to pay a lawyer to go through all the original documents carefully to be anything like certain of the matter.

              Regardless, I don't see much worry for the buyer here. (IANYL TINLA)
              --
              If laughter is the best medicine, who are the best doctors?
  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @03:38PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @03:38PM (#768637)

    Smart guy, checking this out b4 he goes. Yes that priceless item you are leaving your kids may be viewed by them as junk, especially any artistic or intellectual legacy.

  • (Score: 1, Touché) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @07:34PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 01 2018, @07:34PM (#768698)

    Someone is going to buy these and do an item not as described. A disk will be unreadeable or "not delivered" and ebay/paypal will claw dude's money away post haste.

  • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 02 2018, @09:56PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 02 2018, @09:56PM (#768981)

    Please buy this, spend the $ needed to recover, then release the code as a 'historical artifact'. None of it has any practical use, but would be great to have the opportunity to read thru the code.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 06 2018, @06:40PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 06 2018, @06:40PM (#770771)

      Then archived to archive.org, images of the kryofluxed images as well as 'recovered' images placed on an M-DISC dvd/bluray, and if possible duplicates of all text files printed out, with each copy in a different physical location.

      With any luck all of these will survive until copyright runs out, which won't be until long after the kids who played Al Lowe's games are dead.

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