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Activision halts auction of Leisure Suit Larry’s source code despite not owning the IP

Al Lowe's auction of the Leisure Suit Larry source code was killed by Activision lawyers

A few weeks ago, Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe put a number of artifacts from his time working on the games on eBay. Among the items up for sale were two sets of floppy disks, one holding the source code for the original Leisure Suit Larry, and the other housing the code for its sequel. Both auctions were taken down following an order from Activision – but the curious thing is that Activision doesn’t have any claim on the rights to the Larry IP.

By the time the auctions were removed, confirmed bids had gotten as high as $11,000 for Larry 1, and $10,211 for Larry 2. It wasn’t exactly clear what happened at the time – the auctions were just quietly killed – but earlier this week a fan on the Sierra Gamers Facebook page asked. Britton Matthews shared details via a phone conversation with Lowe.

“He received a letter from an outside law firm hired by Activision that ordered him to take it down. He said in the letter Activision understood they don’t own the IP to LSL but that the source code probably contained shared code to King’s Quest and Space Quest. For that reason they sent him the letter.

“Al and I agreed that he was right,” Matthews says, “but by the time you hire an attorney to prove you’re right, it would have cost more than what he would have got from the auctions.”

Lowe tells us via email that Matthews’ summary of the situation is accurate – though he notes that “there’s lots of other weird speculation on that thread that is NOT right.”

While Activision owns the rights to many Sierra classics, the Leisure Suit Larry IP has been sold many times over and now rests with German publisher Assemble Entertainment, which put out a new sequel – Wet Dreams Don’t Dry – earlier this year, and is listed as the publisher for all the Larry games. (Except for the 2013 Reloaded remake, which is no longer available on Steam, but curiously can be purchased on GOG.)

Related: Stay up on the classics with our list of the best old games on PC.

Matthews speculates that “this is one of those scenarios where Activision is compelled to act.” The theory is that – while the company doesn’t have a vested interest in Leisure Suit Larry these days – if a similar auction were to go up for a game the company does care about, then there would be a legal precedent to take the matter to court. US law doesn’t offer much leeway to be selective about IP protection.

Activision did not respond to a request for comment.

“Perhaps I could give the disks to Activision in return for a small storage fee,” Lowe tells us, “like $1/disk/month? Then they’d have copies (which I’ll bet lots of money they don’t have now!) and I’ll get a little something for hoarding treatment.”

When Lowe announced the auction on Twitter, a number of fans for the code to be uploaded to the Internet Archive, or provided to a museum organisation for proper preservation. Though given the message from Activision’s lawyers, it’s unlikely they’d be happy with free distribution, either.

Historic videogame artifacts like this are exceedingly rare – most source code of that era has long since been erased or simply lost to time. Seeing some bit of code preserved like this is nearly miraculous but now, for legal reasons, it’s destined to be locked in Al Lowe’s attic. Given the general lifespan of data on floppy disks, even that bit of archival is unlikely to last much longer.