Free art: the case for internet archives

For every piece of mass-distributed media, whether that be a blockbuster movie, AAA video game, or hit album, there are countless other lesser-known and poorly distributed works of art potentially at risk of extinction. Often, these works were created by independent parties or companies — free of the influence of their era’s mainstream capitalist values — but were distributed in smaller numbers, consumed only by niche audiences. As the memory of these works eventually fades from public consciousness, the remaining, physical copies of the material do as well.

Many of the original authors or developers in question are already deceased. In an ideal world, any corporations that still own their respective intellectual properties would reissue the old material, providing income for the author or their estate and a legitimate means of obtaining the work, but this is often not the case. The corporations and private collectors gatekeeping these properties cannot always be trusted to disseminate their materials. The job has thus fallen on the public, through internet archives.

The ongoing history of internet archives is one filled with broken laws, greed, elitism, and plenty of ethical and legal ambiguity. I will be focusing primarily on the hurdles and advances made in regards to cinema, video game, and music archives, but there are separate communities working to protect classic works of photography, visual art, and literature.

For most fans of vintage video games, their first stop down memory lane was likely playing one of the hundreds of video game ROMs available online. These are digital files containing the read-only memory (ROM) data from a video game. With the proper emulation program, these ROMs could be executed on your home computer, allowing you to freely play a copy of Super Mario Bros. as you might have back in the 1990s.

That is, until around November last year, when Nintendo sued two of the internet’s biggest ROM-hosting sites, and, for $12.2 million USD, resulting in the sites removing all of their ROMs — not just their Nintendo ones. While some of these ROMs are still obtainable elsewhere online, this was a huge move on Nintendo’s part in order to secure the success of future ports for many of these titles, either in the form of the NES and SNES Classic consoles, or a future, online marketplace. Nintendo has a vintage game marketplace called the Virtual Console, though it is currently not available on Nintendo’s latest console, the Nintendo Switch.

In a 2016 conversation with Kotaku, Jason Scott, who works with for the Internet Arcade said: “I have zero faith in the industry to preserve its own history.”

This is a sad reality that many fans of the medium have come to realize as the years go by. Nevertheless, Scott works to create “a web-based library of arcade (coin-operated) video games from the 1970s through to the 1990s,” where emulated versions of these are available to play, for free, right in your browser. Another particularly noble and important project is the Video Game History Foundation, a non-profit organization started in 2017 that is devoted to obtaining and digitally preserving not only old video games and their emulatable ROMs, but also promotional materials and artwork relevant to gaming history. The foundation currently works off of one-time donations and a Patreon page.

Besides free internet archives, there are also boutique film and music publishers like video company Criterion Collection or record label Light In The Attic. They’ve taken on the task of obtaining the rights to cult classics and relatively unknown, foreign, or experimental films and music, reissuing them in a premium package for retail consumption. On April 8, the Criterion Collection will release to the public the Criterion Channel, a monthly subscription-based streaming service that provides access to the Criterion Collection’s vault of films to watch online.

As it cannot always be guaranteed that a record label, production company, or games publisher has even maintained their master tapes and other original material in ideal conditions — or that they even have the intention of re-releasing these less financially lucrative works — it often falls in the hands of the public to make sure these lesser-known gems are uploaded before they disappear for good. While physical institutions whose job is to preserve historical works of art and culture do exist, these bourgeois institutions are not without their faults.

Ideal storage facilities often exist only in institutions like the Library of Congress or postsecondary school libraries such as UTSG’s Media Commons or Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. These institutions often have access to material the public does not. Vintage films are one of the most difficult materials for just anyone to digitize and release online, as the owners of the original film reels are often the filmmakers — or their estates. Take, for instance, the Harvard Film Archives, which, after the death of influential experimental filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson, obtained all of her film reels and miscellaneous work, as well as the intellectual and distribution rights to the material per the conditions of her will. The organization has been digitizing and archiving all of her work in 16mm film reels and digital forms.

Acknowledging the ephemerality of physical media, the Library of Congress has even begun to archive its materials on centralized servers, as the secure, well-maintained containers holding their archives of thousands of CDs are beginning to show wear. Understandably, some postsecondary institutions only offer their materials to staff and students, and only employees and government officials can actually check out materials from the Library of Congress. This is why the maintenance of public, online databases devoted to archiving materials related to — or entire works of — older media is so vital.

Furthermore, while collectors are invaluable resources and contributors of rare and limited materials, these same collectors can often become part of the problem, acting as gatekeepers of arts and culture in order to deepen their pockets. Back in August, over 67 gigabytes worth of rare, lost Japanese video games were anonymously leaked online, including a title once thought to never have been completed and released: Zeddas: Horror Tour 3 / Labyrinthe, the sequel to a Japan-only PC game from the 1990s. Originally available only through a private torrenting site, one user went ahead and publicly uploaded over 70 games online, against the wishes of the uploader.

This action was immediately followed by the uploader threatening to cease contributing to the site, likely motivated by a fear that once these games became publicly available, it would decrease the value and demand of his collection. Stories like this are rare, and it is not common knowledge how one could even access a private torrenting site, as its users are often afraid of the legal repercussions of distributing copyrighted work or losing their membership.

In 2016, the largest private torrenting site on the internet, What.CD, had its servers shut down by French authorities, and with that, the internet lost a treasure trove of otherwise unobtainable titles, predominantly rare and out-of-print indie, foreign, and experimental music. Unlike public — and equally illegal — torrent tracker sites such as The Pirate Bay, the site was once home to over 200,000 members, who could only enter the site through private invites or by passing a rigorous interview process with a site administrator.

Once accepted, its users had to consistently upload or seed torrents to keep their membership, thus ensuring a high level of quality and consistency in the uploaded material. The site most recently made headlines in 2013, when three unpublished stories from Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger were leaked only three years after his death, still 47 years before he had permitted the University of Texas to publish the donated works. The stories were quickly removed from What.CD, both in respect to Salinger’s estate and in fear of the same government officials who would take down the site three years later. While the site’s membership process may have seemed elitist to some and its morals questionable to many, it is without question that the death of What.CD brought with it an enormous loss to the state of musical archival efforts.

Your next favourite album might be in a bin somewhere across the globe, but the internet has the potential to bring this record to you and your computer’s speakers. African-American poet Amiri Baraka once said: “The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world, and themselves more completely.” But with the potential loss of many important works of art, future generations may never get to experience some of the most illuminating and positively impactful works our society has created. 

A deeper conversation needs to be had with the corporations that own these original works, more time and resources need to be donated to places like the Video Game History Foundation, and physical archives need to become more accessible. Everyone benefits when information and art are provided en masse.