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The Library of Congress levels up, makes it easier to preserve culturally important video games

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Oct 26, 2018

Just like it does with books, movies, and comics, the Library of Congress also preserves culturally important video games. The field has blown up so much in the last 30 years, that it can now be considered an art form worthy of preservation and posterity for future generations. This list of titles selected for preservation—known in some circles as the "game canon"—comprises thousands of video games and strategy guides for the games. 

That being said, the process of perpetuating gaming history (at least for server-based games like Blizzard's World of Warcraft) just got a lot more streamlined via some important rule changes implemented by the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library of Congress. These changes were laid out in an 85-page document, which was originally reported on by Vice's Motherboard.

The main takeaway, though, is that there are now exceptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which makes it a criminal offense to rip off any copyrighted digital-based properties for your own gain. In essence, the law (signed by President Clinton) was a way to reconcile existing copyright restrictions with the advent of the Internet, which completely changed the way in which the world conducts business. 

According to Page 57 of the new Library of Congress ruling:

“The Acting Register found that the record supported granting an expansion in the relatively discrete circumstances where a preservation institution legally possesses a copy of a video game’s server code and the game’s local code. In such circumstances, the preservation activities described by proponents are likely to be fair uses ... The record indicated that an exemption would enable future scholarship by enabling researchers to experience games as they were originally played and thereby better understand their design or construction. The Acting Register additionally found such activity unlikely to harm the market for video games. 

Translation...

A video game archivist, museum, or library must legally come into the possession of original servers and coding from a developer, whether through donation or monetary purchase if they want to legally share/preserve the game's history with the public. Emulated and recreated servers and codes are not protected under the change. However, the new ruling did renew a 2015 change that allowed official institutions to break copyright protection on games that "phone home" to servers. 

"Practically, it means that if a museum or archive was donated the servers to an online game, they would be able to take whatever steps necessary to restore, that involves breaking copy protection, dealing with [digital rights management] from third party technology," said Phil Salvador, a D.C.-based librarian and archivist, during a phone call with SYFY WIRE. 

In addition, these exemptions are allowed only because it was determined that they will not hurt game developers and companies in terms of gaming sales. Moreover, this new amount of wiggle room does not apply to "affilate archivists," otherwise known as private citizens not affiliated with official museums, libraries, and archives the The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment in Oakland, California, which has been pushing hard for this change, according to Salvador. 

"When the [Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment] was restoring Habitat, they ran through some issues with other types of technology that were tied into these servers that they were donated. [The exemptions] would theoretically remove this [problem]," he said. 

Another prohibition within the ruling states that if an institution legally acquires the codes and servers, they cannot allow them to be accessed from the outside world. Simply put, people will have to be on site in order to play the games. That being said, these scholarly locations may not have to set up secluded bank vault-esque rooms that house just one game. 

"Based on the exemptions that were given, it sounds like they may have broader permission to run their own servers within their site that goes beyond just having it in a closed, clean room for historical research purposes," said Salvador. 

Despite the number of restrictions within the exemptions (we know, it's a bureaucratic nightmare of legalese), the shift in overall video game preservation and copyright law is a very important step. 

"Even though these are small steps, the incremental change every few years is progress and moving us closer towards museums and archives being able to do more with server-based games," Salvador said. 


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