Exhuming An Ancient Game From A Government Warehouse

Many readers will be familiar with the final scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, in which the Ark of the Covenant, having been retrieved by Indiana Jones, is placed in a crate and wheeled off to be lost in the seemingly infinite depths of a dusty Government warehouse. Who knows what treasures lurk in such fabled taxpayer-funded repositories, and as if to prove their vast potential, [Arthur O’Dwyer] relates a tale of digital archaeology in which the entire source code of a game thought long-lost was regurgitated with the help of a civil servant.

The game in question is Castlequest, which he had played in the 1980s on the now-defunct GEnie online service. One of very few online references to it came via an entry in the copyright catalog of the US Copyright Office, where copyright holders can choose to register their works. Eventually after some detective work and a conversation with one of the game’s authors, he received copies of the entry. But instead of the expected summary, he was pleasantly surprised to find the full Fortran code of the game. The snag was that it came as a PDF scan of printed pages rather than as code itself, so there followed a tedious process of transcription before it could be published in a GitHub repository and eventually made compilable. The code remains copyrighted as an important part of its story, but should you be interested you can transport yourself back four decades and try your luck at text adventuring.

Maybe there’s more to be found in those dusty copyright warehouses, and searching for it has to be more pleasant than digging up landfills.

21 thoughts on “Exhuming An Ancient Game From A Government Warehouse

  1. “The code remains copyrighted as an important part of its story…”

    _Everything_ is copyrighted, except where explicitly put into the public domain! What this code is lacking is a license, meaning you can’t actually do anything with it, as the copyright holders haven’t given permission.

    1. In addition GEnie was bought by IDT corporation which is an active company, so if the game was written for GEnie it will be copyright protected for 95 years after publication unless Mickey Mouse extends his copyright again.

  2. “a tedious process of transcription…”

    Phh. When I were a lad, we used to type in reams of hex data in the hope of getting a working game out the other side. And then double-checking it all. And then waiting for the next month’s magazine in the hope of an errata. And then the one after that… Thanks for nothing, ‘Your Computer’

    1. Yeah, a page load of DATA was a pain, but if it was the only way for you to get a new game you would go through the pain.

      Some put in a checksum check in the parser, so at least you could find out where the error was easily enough. DATA ,checksum

      Then (on the Amstrad CPC at least) someone wrote some code (which would would have to run prior to entering the BASIC listing from the magazine) that hooked into the BASIC editor so that the checksum was printed when entering each line of the program, and those codes were printed for each line in the magazine, which made things a lot more reliable.

  3. Everything is copyrighted? Not even remotely true. A Tale of Two Cities, the Bible, the tag on a mattress that tells you not to remove the tag on a mattress…. and wait for it… copyright law itself !

    “a PDF scan of printed pages” IS “code itself”.

    1. Copyright used to be something the author had to apply for. If they didn’t then their work wasn’t copyright. In the US at least I want to say it was the Copyright act of 1976 that changed that. But I don’t actually remember. Maybe I’m wrong about when it changed. Anyway, since then everything is considered to be automatically copyrighted unless the author explicitly declared it public domain.

      So, anyway, if it was 1976 then yes there would be source code out there from before that. But the vast majority is from later.

      1. “Copyright used to be something the author had to apply for.” This is not true. Registration or application has never been a required formality in the US. On and off around the turn of the century it was required that copyrighted works had to be submitted to the Library of Congress. Also for quite a while copyright notice on all published/unpublished works were required for federal copyright protection. Registration has always been and is still optional (under most circumstances. i.e. you have to register before suing in court for protection).

    2. ” Not even remotely true”

      Unlike patents, where you have to actively register something for protection to apply, copyright protection begins when something is created, the so called “sweat of brow” clause. So technically this and the parent comment are now copyright protected and I can now sue you for infringement if you quote it without proper attestation. Ine exception are documents that the expiry date has passed, but even that is complicated (Author lifetime plus 70 years), meaning that many pictures, books that people assume are not in copyright are, and lets not even start with fair use.

      The reason that people assume things are not copyrighted is that in order for someone to express their claim of copyright they would need to take someone to court. It is highly unlikely that i am going to sue someone for the use of this comment, because personally I see no value in it (you may well agree :) ). Also now materials can be easily copied and disseminated people assume that copyright no longer applies, but that is not true and there are always predatory lawyers looking to pounce on the unwary (companies have to be especially careful of the material they use )

      Truth is copyright is a minefield for the unwary

      1. “So technically this and the parent comment are now copyright protected and I can now sue you for infringement if you quote it without proper attestation. ”

        Actually, technically, and legally, if you read the terms of service you’ll see that Supply Frame retains ownership of everything on the site not listed in the “User content” section of the TOS. This includes comments.

        “Truth is copyright is a minefield for the unwary”. Yep!

  4. I can kind of understand why Congress always gives in to Disney and keeps extending copyright. I mean, sure, it’s money really. They are corrupt and paid to do it. But set that aside and imagine being in that position and not being corrupt.

    Does it really make sense for Mickey Mouse to be public domain? Of course rule 34 applies whether it is legal or not but does that need to be legitimized? And no, not just rule 34 and no, not just Mickey Mouse. When the author or owning corporation is still “keeping a character alive”, when they are still making new stories and developing their “universe” do we really need to give everyone who might want to cash in the right to do so? And maybe bend the characters in their own way contrary to the owners intention?

    But that shouldn’t mean every thing ever written is locked down until Mickey Mouse finally runs out. If it does then most of culture will be lost and forgotten.I think the length of patents should be shortened but owners should be able to apply for unlimited extensions. The first couple extension are “freebies” because we already do consider work copyrighted even without publication. After that it would be required to show that a work or something based on that work is still in publication.

    I say, something based upon that work because this way a company like Disney could say that all of the Mickey Mouse and related cartoons and stories remain copyrighted and no one can write stories using those characters or in the “Disney universe” as long as Disney keeps publishing related works. They wouldn’t necessarily have to keep publishing every old cartoon forever just to ensure the characters remain protected.

    Instead lawmakers are dead set on the idea that copyright law for published and unpublished work must be exactly the same forever. So the only way to protect Mickey is to apply the longest, most draconian law to everything. I don’t know what the exact times involved would be but there could still be quite a large amount of time allotted even to works that fail to publish even without reaching the current 90 some years limit. It’s not like I am suggesting one MUST be financially successful to get any sort of protection.

    1. I’m reminded of the rule for mining claims that you must show you’ve done $100 (I think) of upgrades to keep the claim from expiring. I’m vague on that right now, but that’s the general idea. Both patent and copyright are intended to provide for creators to protect and profit from their work, but also to foster innovation. Patent law may be one of humanity’s most valuable ideas – providing protection for creators to share their ideas without fear of losing their work to their competition. However both patent and copyright law have been twisted from their best function – fostering innovation and creativity – into stifling either in many cases.

    2. Mickey and the rest of the universe are all protected by trademark too. And, really, a lot of it should be falling under trademark protection anyway – which has no time limit.

      In an alternate universe where Congress doesn’t keep giving in to Disney on copyright, what’s Steamboat Willie going to look like without being able to use the words “Mickey Mouse” or even a depiction of him? I suspect it’s not going to do a lot to Disney’s bottom line.

  5. Speaking of ancient games, I’m trying to track down one I used to play on FidoNet called Semi-Intelligent Droids. I would love to modernize it so if anyone has any leads, please let me know!

      1. Can you find the PC Gamer cover CD that contained free, full versions of several DOS games, including Star Control 2? All the games were patched by their publishers to remove things like requiring the game disc or looking up stuff in the manual. Star Control 2 included PDFs of the manual and starmap. When it asks for something from the manual, just hit Enter.

        IIRC X-COM was on it too. Don’t recall the others. I bought the magazine issue when it was new 20+ years ago.

        Of course id software contributed to the special CD-ROM. The shareware version of DOOM. Nevermind they probably hadn’t sold a copy in years, in the era of Quake, but greedy has to greed.

  6. There is a CD image at archive.org that may contain what you’re looking for. The name is “SDN1 Plus” from Profit Press. Unfortunately the spam moderation system is bloking me from posting a direct link, so you will need to search it yourself: at archive.org go to “software”, and then “all software”, and in the search box type “SDN1”.

    You’re welcome.

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