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There are a lot of people still using "defunct" software such as Lotus 1-2-3 and Lotus Organizer. We also use existing software today that will be cancelled in the near future but may still have market value - just not to the copyright holder.

Is there any obligation on the part of the copyright holder to actually provide the material that they are protecting, or is it legal to simply "sit on" it and refuse to allow the world to buy or sell their defunct software?

i.e. had Apple held their slide-to-open patent, and then never provided it to the public for usage, could they legally simply prevent the planet from ever using slide-to-lock?

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    The copyright owner could decide at any time to revive the software so no, there's no early expiration. I certainly know of authors and heirs who are sitting on books and refusing for them to be republished. I think you're mixing up copyrights and patents. Patents have a shorter lifespan. – mkennedy Jan 20 at 16:51
  • If you own a copy of Lotus 1-2-3 (e.g. on original media that you did not illegally copy), no one can prevent you from selling that. Not even the copyright holder. – Brandin Jan 22 at 8:44
  • Ah!! I see. So an unopened copy is still legal for sale, although unsupported. However reverse-engineering 1-2-3 is a patent violation. – frozenjim Jan 23 at 13:10
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There are three inter-related issues present in your question:

  • Licenses
  • Copyright
  • Patents

The user who purchased software such as Lotus 1-2-3 purchased a license to use the product, not the product itself. In the case of software that is no longer supported there is, usually, still an entity that owns the right to license the product. In the specific case of Lotus 1-2-3, IBM owns those rights because IBM acquired Lotus in 1995. Here is the announcement from IBM announcing their withdrawal and discontinuance of support for Lotus 123. In that announcement you will see that the products are licensed under the "IBM International Program License Agreement." The rules about what you may or may not do with the software will be contained in that license.

While IBM may have withdrawn support for Lotus 123, they don't appear to have abandoned their rights regarding licensing of the product.

IBM also owns the copyright to the Lotus 123 product. The copyright grants certain protections to the copyright holder. One of those protections is the ability to prevent people from making copies of the software and further distributing them.

The IBM International Program License Agreement prohibits a licensee from distributing copies of the software product. Copyright law prevents anyone from distributing copies of the software product for the life of the copyright without the permission of the copyright holder.

There is the allowance for fair use under U.S. copyright law that, for example, allows the owner, in most cases a licensee of software, to make copies for backup or archiving purposes.

Another method that software authors use to protect their intellectual property is a patent which protects an invention. If Lotus 123 contained such a patent then other developers would be prohibited from implementing the patented process without permission of the patent holder.

Withdrawing support for a product doesn't change any of the terms of the license agreement, nor does it change the expiration date of the copyright or any patents located within the software.

One very common business model for "selling" software is to license its use to the market and offer support as either an add-on purchase or something included in the original price for a set time period. For the case of Lotus 123, and most other software products, these are distinct offerings and it's not uncommon for a software company to withdraw their support offering from the market. Withdrawing that support in no way affects the terms of the license agreement.

In this specific case, it is against the license terms for any licensee to re-sell the software outside the terms of the license so, technically, there are no "licensed" copies of the software that can be sold without the license. Copyright law would prevent a non-licensee from distributing copies of the software without permission of the copyright holder.

  • "There are no 'legal' copies of the software that can be sold without the license." - Selling a copy of a software that you legally purchased (say, on original media) does not require accepting a license agreement to purchase that software. So, no license terms would be broken by reselling such legal software and it is impossible to prevent such a legal sale using a license agreement (e.g. in a EULA or before you run the program). – Brandin Jan 22 at 8:46
  • @Brandin - you are correct and I changed the answer to reflect that no "licensed" copies can be sold without the license. An original, unlicensed instantiation of the software can be resold many times. Copyright prevents unlicensed duplicates of the software from legally being distributed. – Dave D Jan 22 at 11:29
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Is there any obligation on the part of the copyright holder to actually provide the material that they are protecting

No.

is it legal to simply "sit on" it and refuse to allow the world to buy or sell their defunct software?

Yes.

could they legally simply prevent the planet from ever using slide-to-lock?

Not really, depending on what "legally prevent" means. Other companies could simply ignore the patent, then wait for the lawsuit. As soon as the lawsuit arrives they can either settle, or have the court decide the damages and fees they owe.

Similarly, people and companies can use abandonware and hope the copyright holder either doesn't care, doesn't have the means to take legal action, or that the eventual settlement won't be too expensive.

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Copyright duration depends on the country of first publication and, for its protection in other countries, whether those countries observe the rule of the shorter term or not.

For Lotus 1-2-3 I’m guessing that this was published by a corporation in the USA so it is protected for 95 years from that date.

There is no obligation on a copyright holder to make their works available. People who own a licence may be able to transfer that licence if the licence allows this.

Patents last for 20 years from the date of filing - they also do not need to be used.

  • In the UK, copyright would expire 70 years after the last software developer dies who made a copyrightable contribution to the product. – gnasher729 Jan 22 at 16:31
  • @gnasher729 only if published simultaneously in the US and the UK. If first published in the US then US terms apply because the UK uses the ‘shorter period’ rule. – Dale M Jan 22 at 18:50

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