Concerning Ultima 4 (Or: In Which I Have to Be The Wet Blanket)

Above the Post Update (Akalaupdate, I guess): This article has generated a lot of buzz, but there’s been no small amount of misinformation tossed about in regard to it, this site, EA, and even Ultima 4 in all the excitement. I’ve attempted to offer some corrections and clarifications in this article.

Escape from Mount Update: I’ve gone through and made some corrections. The reason for this will be explained in a forthcoming article.

* * *

Observant Dragons and Dragonettes may have noticed that there has been some…disruption in Ultima 4-related projects of late. For example, both the Master System 8 and Phi Psi Software Flash-based remakes of the game have been taken down. Additionally, both Aiera and xu4 have removed their direct download links for the PC version of the game, and Dino has removed his comprehensive listing of other sites that hosted the same download.

Basically, after about fourteen years (since approximately 1997), Electronic Arts is finally cracking down and issuing DMCA notifications to most — not all! — sites that are hosting the PC version of Ultima 4 for download. This move is not being taken well by many, and people are wondering both why EA is wasting time enforcing copyright on an old game like this, and asking “hey, wasn’t it released as freeware?”

Where It All Began.

Back in the late 1990s, Origin arranged for the PC version of Ultima 4 — the full game — to be released for free on a CD distributed with a particular copy of PC Games/Computer Gaming World.

Late in 1997, Lady Whisper Dragon (who maintains the Worlds of Origin website along with her husband) evidently secured permission from Origin Systems to distribute the version of the game from that CD on her website. The announcement of this was made in a Usenet discussion thread.

Later on in that same thread, a person known as Boomer — AKA Mike McCoy, who at the time was Origin’s “online community manager” — dropped in to clarify, based on a question posed by Fortran Dragon, that the version of the game which was released to Lady Whisper for free download was in fact the PC version of the game, the same binary that had shipped on the PC Games/CGW CD. (Plus the usual bits about it not being for commercial distribution.)

Prior to Lady Whisper posting a version of the game for download, a couple of other Ultima Dragon-run sites were able to secure similar permission to distribute the CD verison of the game. Of these, only Contrapuntal Dragon’s site still exists. Fortran’s Hidalgo Trading Company was the other, but it is no longer online. Lady Whisper was probably the third or fourth person to host a download.

However (and this is an update and correction), I have since determined that Lady Whisper is not hosting the correct version of Ultima 4 for download. Contrapuntal Dragon’s version is the version from the PC Games/CGW CD, which is the version that Origin released. Lady Whisper, however, has posted the version of Ultima 4 that shipped on the Ultima Collection CD for download. The differences between these versions are slight, but a file size comparison tells the tale.

As such: I’m removing links to Lady Whisper’s download from the site here, and I would encourage everyone else to do the same.

Where It Really Began, However.

Just prior to these Dragons getting permission to distribute the game, however, was something that Contrapuntal Dragon refers to as the Kickass Debacle. Basically, a gaming site billing itself as Kickass Games (I have no idea if they are related to the present site with that name) was offering Ultima 4 (the version from PC Games/CGW) for download.

Which struck Contrapuntal Dragon as an odd thing since he was aware that various Ultima Dragons had asked Origin for permission to distribute the CD version of the game, and had been refused.

The confrontation with Kickass Games turned ugly and petty, but at the outcome of it Contrapuntal and other UDIC members were informed that they could offer the CD version for download on their websites. After confirming this with Boomer at Origin, Contrapuntal happily set up a download page for the game, and so did a couple of other Dragons (sadly, these other sites no longer appear to be online).

So That Means It’s Free, Right?

Well, yes…and also no. As Contrapuntal Dragon explains at his Ultima 4 download page, the release of the PC Games/CGW version of the game for download was mostly a gesture of goodwill on Origin’s part. And yes, at certain select sites, the game is indeed available for download for free.

So it’s not, as Jazzcat said in this thread at Horizons Tavern, the case that EA “won’t allow anyone to enjoy this classic RPG.” In plain point of fact, they will. But equally, it’s also not the case that “Ultima 4 was released to the public domain in 2001.” That is, sadly, a happy little fiction that the Ultima fandom has invented for itself.

And as Contrapuntal makes clear, EA still holds the copyright to the game, and has ever since the Origin acquisition. The game itself was released in a controlled fashion; the copyright holding was not abandoned at that time.

You Keep Using This Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

Ultima 4 is available for free in a few select places online; that’s been established. Does that mean it’s “freeware”?

I suppose it depends what you mean by “freeware”, because the meaning of that word has always been a bit fluid, and in fact has shifted a few times over the years. The game is available for free from certain Ultima Dragons but, as Contrapuntal Dragon and Lady Whisper both make clear, that fact does not entitle others to download the game and redistribute it on other websites without the express permission of Origin Systems (or, now, Electronic Arts).

Ultima 4 hasn’t been released in the same way that the id Tech 2 engine has, or in the same way that Bungie released the Marathon games; it’s not GPL or some other flavour of open distribution. Electronic Arts still retains the copyright to the game, and it is still possible to commit piracy in regard to Ultima 4.

So What Does That Mean For The Various Projects/Remakes?

Well…that’s the thing, isn’t it?

Historically, Electronic Arts has taken a pretty relaxed view of the Ultima remake community, and I would expect that they will continue to do so in the future. However, it is the case that the two Flash-based remakes of Ultima 4 have received DMCA (copyright violation) notices. I’ve spoken with a couple of people “on the inside” about this, and the takeaway I got from that was actually about what I expected to hear.

Basically, a straight-up remake like the two Neverwinter Nights-based remakes of Ultima 4 are probably safe; I don’t think Electronic Arts has any interest in going after mods like that, and in fact they really didn’t come up in discussion at all.

A project like xu4 is also (probably) safe, since it still requires a copy of the original game to run. They’ll probably have to cease distributing copies of the game with their non-Windows builds, and will of course not be able to offer the PC version of Ultima 4 for direct download. But really, xu4 can be thought of as a glorified “make it run under [insert OS here]” patch for the game. From a legal perspective, that should be okay.

The two Flash-based versions of the game are probably toast, however, though I’m given to believe that Electronic Arts is willing to hear an argument for why they should be left available.

What about Classic Ultima Online, some of you are wondering? That one is a tough call. From what I gather, BioWare Mythic is lobbying pretty hard to keep that project available, and I have heard that they’re pretty interested in talking with its developer. It might survive, or it might not; I think that will depend on a few factors that have not yet been fully resolved.

Why Now?

This is probably the big question most of you are asking. After all, it’s been about fourteen years since Origin okayed certain Dragons to host the PC version of the game for free download. It has seen a lot of proliferation since then; even Aiera hosted a copy for download for a brief period.

So why, now, after all this time, is EA finally taking actions to protect its copyright?

I suspect that I can answer in three words: Mythic’s secret project.

There have been a lot of rumours circulating around — including a few hints dropped by people at Mythic proper — suggesting that their secret project is very likely Ultima-related, and indeed that it is related to Ultima 4 in some way. And if that’s the case, it actually makes a lot of sense that EA would put some effort into making sure that the Ultima 4 property and copyright isn’t being violated online.

So How Do We All Proceed?

For the moment, anyone wishing to post a download link to Ultima 4 can do one of two things: link to Aiera’s entry for the game, which has links to both of the known legitimate downloads of Ultima 4. Alternatively, link to either of the downloads themselves, links to Contrapuntal Dragon’s download page or the file he hosts, a link to which which can be found earlier in this article or at Aiera’s Ultima 4 entry.

Or you can just link to the Ultima 4 entry at GOG, where the game can also be obtained for free.

Second, let’s all just take this as a reminder that while the remake community has enjoyed the enormous benefit of EA’s relative lack of interest in its various efforts (as opposed to how, say, Ubisoft treats fan mods and suchlike), there are obvious legal limits to that.

To be fair, I’ve heard from a couple sources that EA really don’t want to be complete tyrants about this, which is why only two projects — the Flash-based ones — have been taken down. xu4 received a notice to remove their hosted download of Ultima 4; Aiera received no such notice directly, but I took the proactive step of removing the link to my local copy of the file anyhow, in favour of links to known, safe download sites.

They’re not trying to step on more toes than necessary, but neither are they going to let the more obvious copyright violations slide. Which, really, is fair; it’s their copyright, their IP, to defend after all.

I realize that some people will feel offended and/or upset by this turn of events. Certainly, how we, the fan and remake community, approach the idea of Ultima 4′s availability as “freeware” will have to shift, as will our thinking in regard to the use and distribution of that property. But really, this isn’t some new and draconian shift in EA policy, so I would ask — almost beg, really — everyone not to make it out to be anything of the sort.

For the most part, and for most of us, it’s still “business as usual”; please don’t take this as an indication that you should all stop work on whatever projects you are involved in, pack up shop, pull your downloads offline, and get back to your real life. This is not the first wave in a comprehensive push by Electronic Arts to snuff out the remake community.

At the same time, it’s never a bad idea to make sure that you’re not violating copyright in any actionable way.

Questions, comments, and concerns can be left in the comments form; stuff you’d rather keep private can be submitted via the contact form (though I reserve the right to post a public reply — stripped of identifying personal details, of course — to particularly good questions).

Update: This story has been Slashdotted! Welcome, Slashdot readers!

Revenge of the Update: Welcome to all you Clippy.be, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Blue’s News, RPGWatch, RPG Codex, Broken Toys, GameStar, Big Download, and Good Old Games readers! And thanks for all the link love, people!

Updateodus: Welcome, also, to you Game Politics readers, and thanks for the link! It’s nice to know I’m your favourite Ultima site.

There is one thing in the Game Politics article that needs correction, though:

One of my all-time favorite Ultima sites, Ultima Aiera, also removed links to many Ultima IV-related projects.

This is simply not true. What has been done, however, is that I have removed my copy of the actual Ultima 4 binary from the Ultima 4 entry on the site; that entry now points to the two hosted downloads of the game that I am reasonably certain possess the legal right to offer it. I have also moved the two project entries for the Flash-based versions of the game to the Cemetery.

In other words: the only thing I removed was a link to my hosted copy of Ultima 4. There have been a few rearrangements outside of that, but no other removals.

Quest of the Update: Welcome also to you VG24/7 readers.

Another correction, though. The VG24/7 article states that:

EA has issue[d] a cease and desist order to fan site Ultima Aiera, informing the site and others hosting Ultima IV, as well as Flash-based remakes, to pull any files pertaining to it.

It is true that C&D notices were sent to several sites. Aiera, however, was not one of these; I voluntarily removed the link to my hosted download (which was really just a copy of Contrapuntal Dragon’s download anyhow).

Update of Destiny: Welcome, also, to readers of Gracz.info and MeriStation. Man, this story is making waves!

The False Update: And welcome, as well, to any GryViews readers! Thanks for the link!

The Stygian Update: PC Gamer mentions the site by name (cool!) but doesn’t link (sad!). Still, welcome to anyone finding Aiera from that article!

Savage Update: German gaming site PS3 Inside sends in a link, in the midst of a news round-up.

Martian Update: Rampant Games comments on the story; welcome, RG readers, and thanks for the link guys!

The Black Update: Also, welcome GamerOwnage readers! Another link, and more thanks from me!

Labyrinth of Updates: This is getting out of control: this article has its own bit.ly URL: bit.ly/u4wetblanket!

Update Isle: Welcome, readers from Tweakers.net and NOWGamer! Thanks for even more link love!

Pagupdate: This is officially off the charts; this article has now been linked from Gamefront, GameBanshee, and Gama-freaking-sutra. Eurogamer also sends some link love, as does GreyViper. Thanks, y’all!

Updatecion: And welcome, GameSource readers! Thanks for the link, my Italian friends!

Update Online: And now The Escapist has picked up the story. Thanks for the link, fellas! Love your animations.

The Update Age: And how’s this for interesting? Look who has been by the site today:

ea-visit
Electronic Arts...kind of expected
sega-visit
Sega of America?
lucasfilm-visit
LU...CAS...FILM?!?!?

This is just what I’ve noticed in StatCounter so far; I’m sure there’s been even more. But I just use StatCounter’s free service, which limits log size to 500 entries. Which is really not that much on a day when the site is seeing four to six times its daily traffic.

Updateissance: Italian gaming site Io Videogioco has picked up this story, as has Comunita, German gaming sites Play3 and Gamona, Czech gaming site Doupe, GamesIndustry, and Computer and Video Games (CVG). Thanks for all the linkage, folks!

Update Dawn: The story has also found its way onto Reddit.

Lord Blackthorn’s Update: Kotaku and Evil Avatar have picked up and run with the various rumours surrounding this news, though neither of them links to Aiera directly. Still…this story has legs!

Age of Update: Last Game Zone mentions Aiera by name, but doesn’t link. Even so, thanks!

Samurai Update: Finnish gaming site V2 comments on the Kotaku story; Aiera gets a link in the comments.

Mondain’s Update: More visitors!

visit-ncsoft
NCSoft...former employers of Richard Garriott!
visit-thq
THQ...very nice, very nice.
visit-cia
Wait...what? The CIA?

As long as no black helicopters show up near my house, it’s all good.

Updatian Abyss: Blaq, at Ze War, comments a bit about the secret project and how it might just be impacting future developments in his favourite MMO, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning.

Update on the High Seas: C&G Monthly talks about the story and apparently links to the site (if traffic logs are to be believed). Italian gaming site Multiplayer.it also sends some link love this way. German site PhantaNews also links, but fans the flames of speculation about a new Ultima MMORPG title. Fragland also sends in a link.

Comments are closed.