Panzer General and copyright: the other world conquest

24Feb07

Does extended copyright protection help keep valuable older works available to the public? Well, I say no, and now I’ve got the tanks, troops, and artillery to back me up.

Before we get into a whole, big war over this question, let’s look at a new study on the topic. Lawrence Lessig provided the pointer to a study by Paul Heald, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law. Professor Heald points out in his abstract that, although compensation for creators remains the primary rationale for copyright protection, there have been arguments made recently that extended copyright protection also helps maintain the availability of older works by providing a profit incentive for continuing to keep them available. Heald tests this notion by comparing a group of best-selling novels from 1913-1922 that have been released to the public domain, to a comparable group from 1923-1932 that is still under copyright protection. My crude summarization of Heald’s fair and careful study is that old bestsellers which have reached the intellectual commons are now more available than those which are still under copyright protection.

I don’t read a lot of bestselling novels from 1913-1932, and so have little to add to Professor Heald’s study. But I did recently search for a computer game from 1994, which is a comparable time frame in computer years. In particular, I was looking for the classic DOS game, Panzer General. For those who don’t know, Panzer General is a turn-based strategy game from the mid-Nineties that puts you in charge of the German panzer armies of WWII. Being one of the first computer games I ever played, the game was engrossing, and I spent hours obsessing over artillery placement, fighter plane tactics, the battle group compositions, and the general question of how to achieve maximum shock and awe with a minimum of forces. Like any good turn-based strategy game, the fun was in the problems to solve, not the graphics. I was enthralled for months but as with any game, I eventually drove my panzer legions past the point of diminishing marginal utility. So Panzer General went into the dustbin of history, and I moved on to other, newer entertainments.

But Panzer General came back to my mind recently when I was poking around on Google for Linux games. One link took me to Christopher Edwards’ Ubuntu Tutorials blog here on WordPress, where Edwards has written a great article on using DOSBox, an emulation program, to play the classic DOS games on Linux. The instructions were clear and worked like a charm, and I started thinking about Panzer General again, curious to see if it would be fun again after a ten-year respite.

Edwards’ article mentions Abandonia as a place to find old DOS games. I followed the link and found that Abandonia, for someone interested in intellectual property and the public commons, is an interesting place in its own right. Abandonia traffics in “abandonware,” and like any efficient citizen of the commons, in their FAQ they let Wikipedia explain the concept for them:

Q: What is Abandonware? Is it legal?
A: Wikipedia: “Abandonware is computer software which is no longer being sold or supported by its copyright holder. Alternately, the term is also used for software which is still available, but on which further support and development has been deliberately discontinued.” Since the software is no longer sold or supported, the copyright holders are not directly harmed in any way. This is why abandonware sites are, for the most part, ignored by the law. The distribution of copyrighted software however is, and will allways be, illegal!

However, Abandonia does not describe Panzer General as abandonware. They describe it as software that is still for sale from its copyright holder. Therefore, they do not offer the game directly for download, but instead provide a link to a retail site where you can buy Panzer General. The link leads to a firm named Purplus Software, which offers the game on CD for $14.95.

I have to admit I was a little disappointed at that. When I start thinking I’m going to be able to get something for free, then any price much more than postage feels like a lot, especially for a 10-year-old computer game. But I have to admit that in a world where a two-hour movie plus soda and popcorn will cost $15 or more, a computer game for the same price, which I can play for many hours, offers a consumer surplus that is more than fair. So I adjusted my frame of mind and pulled out my credit card like a responsible citizen of the New World Order… and then came to the realization that Purplus Software was also listing the game as being out of stock, and providing no links for back ordering or even just getting more information about when or if the game might become available. I also then noticed that $14.95 is their “sale” price, while they list the regular price as being $12.95. So I guess the game is not in stock because the rush of people wanting to take advantage of that sale price just cleaned them out. I began to suspect that Purplus Software might not be the brightest bulb in the great chandelier of competitive enterprise.

I was at a dead-end, since this particular instance of the Long Tail had apparently been cut off in some tragic, corporate accident. But surely there is some entrepreneur or other out there pursuing profit by making sure that a famous game with copyright protection and essentially zero production costs is available for sale? So I checked trusty Amazon, and did find three vendors who would sell me Panzer General (there was also a Mac discount outlet who would sell me an OS7 Mac version). But these were just private individuals selling used copies in the aftermarket.

Now I was curious. I tried a different direction in my search by searching for the original creators, the very people whose skill and creativity are supposed to be rewarded by copyright. I sought out SSI, Strategic Software Inc., the creator of Panzer General. That search initially lead to a couple of annoying dead-ends. For example, “SSIOnline” is one of those irritating faux websites that are just an excuse to show you a google ad search. But with a little persistence I did learn that SSI has since been acquired by Ubisoft, a French-owned firm with offices around the world. Searching for “Panzer General” on the Ubisoft site results in the message “No game found.” Maybe the French are still just a little sensitive about that whole blitzkrieg episode. Or maybe it’s just that “rights holders appear to have few real-world commercial incentives to reissue many of their most significant recordings” (or computer games, in this case) as stated in a Library of Congress study mentioned by Heald. In any case, I abandoned my quest to find a profit-motivated, copyright-empowered vendor for Panzer General, having already rung up costs for the time spent searching that were more than I was willing to pay for the game.

Copyright-empowered private initiative in the pursuit of profit had failed me, but what about private initiative in the pursuit of fun? Another search session on Google (and a quick session this time) took me to Wendy’s Panzer General page. Wendy built a page about Panzer General because she enjoys the game, and wants to help others who could enjoy it. Wendy not only has Panzer General available for immediate download, she has it packaged in a good half dozen different versions and installation configurations. I selected the one that seemed right for me, and was playing the game in an hour.

Final Score: Copyright-generated profit incentive — zero. Wendy — 7 points, since she gets 1 point for having the game available; two points for having it available as a download instead of requiring me to pay shipping for a physical CD disk that I don’t need or want; three points for the multiple configurations and options; and a bonus point for enthusiasm that makes looking through her website fun. And the final score for me — hours of fun plus $15 that is still available for other uses. It’s a slamdunk win for the intellectual commons.

So, does extended copyright motivate people to keep older materials available to the public? My experience says no, but my experience is only an anecdote, and generalizations from an anecdote, or a collection of anecdotes, can’t really help settle the question. Thoughtful, honest, statistical studies can, though, and that is why work like Heald’s is so valuable. Careful work like that will eventually conquer the world.

Update: When I wrote my original post I had installed DOSBox on my desktop PC, just assuming that DOSBox would only work on PCs. But I was wrong in that assumption, and last night I installed both DOSBox and Panzer General on my Apple G4 laptop. Good news for PPC Linux owners; bad news for Poland.

In other bad news, Wendy’s Panzer General site seems to be out of action. I can only hope that this isn’t a permanent development.

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3 Responses to “Panzer General and copyright: the other world conquest”

  1. 1 Brian

    I too am a Panzer General fanatic. It seems I try the newest games for a while but I always come back to Panzer General because it never gets boring for me. I’ve recently switched over to Linux and lGeneral isn’t cutting it for me. I want the original! I’m having trouble though getting it to work on DOSbox and any suggestions would be useful. Anyway, thanks for the article. Wendy’s site was spectacular but there are still many other sites dedicated to this game which is in my opinion the best strategy game ever created to date. Thanks again!

  2. Hey Brian,

    I agree with you on lgeneral. I admire the work that went into it and the effort to produce a clean, GPL version of the game, but kulkanie’s decision to eliminate the promotion of your core units across a campaign eliminated one of the most fun aspects of the game for me.

    All I know about DOSBox comes from the article on Christopher Edwards’ Ubuntu blog. I didn’t see where you followed the link from my post to his article, so you should have a look and see if it helps with anything.

    johnrobert

  3. hi brian and john

    I too am a panzer general fanatic and love this game to death.I like the fact it is not much of an issue when it comes to copy write laws.it is however harder to find in the original case cd format.
    I admire the strategy and tactics of the game and that is what made it real-time and realistic for me.historically accurate.very fun game for me.
    I am enjoying it with dosbox and having fun.


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