There has been a long running concern in the vintage computer fraternity that involves the handling of data found on discarded, recovered or secondhand computers and equipment. It is now generally accepted to be poor form to parouse data found intact on a on a volume whch has been obtained secondhand, and the accepted decorum generally seems to be that if intact data such as documents from previous users is discovered, it should be immediately deleted. There is a more hardline school of thought even that would have it considered that any hard drive or media be formatted flat and clean of any and all data indiscriminately before the volume is even used at all... this school of thought often takes into account in many case the probable presence of licensed software that theoretically we have no right to use if we havent paid for it. Believe it or not, there are many many people that get antsy about such things... usually serial bigots without any other discernable cause. But I digress.
Let's get the software side of things out of the way first up. So yes, it is in theory a transgression of the law to utilise software for which you dont own a license unless stated by the author of said title, however the specific laws which cover this are somewhat grey, cloudy, and open to interpretation, and still very contestable. They also do not recognise or take into account the concept of "Abandonwear"... Software that is no longer in any way supported or acknowledged by it's original author due to extreme obsolescence, or due to the original authoring entity no longer being in existence at all, which is becoming more and more common with it now approaching 40 years since the personal computer became concern. This I find interesting given that even a registered patent has a finite duration before it must be either renewed for another finite timeframe or relinquished.
As it stands, many licenses allow for software to be installed for use by a finite number of users on a finite number of machines at the time of purchase. As a general rule of thumb these licenses have not in the past... at least not in the 90's and early 2000's where I have the most concern for them... been subject to personal restrictions as to who may use it. The license for most simply stipulates that the software may be installed on x machines, and/or be used by y people... Where am I going with this? Well, allow me to present a scenario....
Let's say for instance somebody discards their old mid-90's vintage Powermac complete with it's copy of ClarisWorks still installed, and ceases to use the product ever again as they had gone and purchased a MacBook to replace it. I find their old Mac at a local dump and take it home and boot it up, then find to my delight that it has ClarisWorks still installed (cos let's face it, Appleworks sucked) and use it... Even though Claris was taken over by Apple in the 90's and therefore theoretically the license issued by Claris still could be said to stand due to Apple being an existing entity in the present, theoretically there is no contravention of the law taking place if I continue to use the suite for private use, as it is still only installed on one machine (indeed the same machine at that), and being used by one person, as per the original license agreement. If on the other hand, I use it on the machine that was discarded, but meanwhile the original purchaser has retained their copy of the packaged software and installed it on an iMac they bought for the kids, THEY are in fact actively contravening the terms of the license and er go breaking the law, as it is their responsibility as licensee to ensure that only one copy of the software is installed and in use as stated by the terms of the Agreement for as long as they hold the license. I too, of course would be breaking the law in this circumstance, however the original licensee of the software is breaking the law on two counts by failing to uphold their responsibility of ensuring the software was deleted from the old machine prior to disposal... so who really has the high ground? This personal accountability is just as much relevant to personal digital effects, as I'll discuss not too far below.
So, that's practical, productive, theoretically still profitable software, with living or otherwise accountable authors/vendors covered. Now what of grossly obsolete, totally unsupported, and or completely orphaned software... things like MacWrite, MacDraw, MacPaint that went out with bubonic plague, the original monochrome Microsoft Flight Simulator, old, obsolete by up to 20 years or more, and now totally unsupported Macintosh System/MacOS installs, or the countless shareware, donationware, freeware or even paid-for, licensed software that was authored and/or released by entities that no longer exist? There once was a time when their license agreements were credible and binding, but in my opinion, the concept of being bound to a license created by an entity that no longer exists is absurd... Whilst I respect and take my hat off to the authors of years gone by, I'll happily contravene any law that says I'm bound to a license issued by a body that no longer exists. Same could be said for license agreements in place for software that has been completely dropped from distribution, is grossly obsolete and of very limited capabilities in present day application and/or is no longer supported by it's original vendor.... For instance Macintosh system software prior to OSX (or even including earlier variants of X if one wanted to go that far), or any pre-OSX software titles that are no longer updated or supported, which I'd go as far as to say that is most of them. The law becomes murky and grey in these parts anyway, and as far as I am concerned, the moment software becomes officially unsupported/obsolete, the original EULA should be rendered null and void, and the title should then be covered instead by some kind of state-legislated, generalised, Fair-Use policy. Again, I'll happily break the law by using a copy of MacOS 10.4 that I dont have a license to use, as Apple's "my way or the highway" policy of forced obscolescence has made it impossible for me to obtain a new legitimate copy for years. And same goes for all the software that is installed on the Mac Plus external HDD I dug out of an attic... I've got Buckley's of finding most of these pioneering programs, or even references to the existence of some, even if i wanted to purchase these monochrome games for the $10 each game title cost in 1989, as the they have been long forgotten about and the developers by now in many cases have shut up shop or passed away.
Now for the personal data/old documents side of the argument. The long and short of how I see things is to the effect that when one creates any data, whether it be electronic or otherwise, ultimate responsibility for maintaining it's security or confidentiality comes down to the creater. It isn't hard to format or erase a volume that has been made redundant... or even simply hit the thing with a sledgehammer or drop it off a bridge into a river. If one makes the decision to freely dispose of intact media with data still intact as well, then they are effectively releasing said data into the public domain.
Whilst I am not for a second suggesting that people should go out of their way to use carelessly released digital data for purposes of evil, or even go out of their way to parouse said data, I would like to make a point that people ought to be taking far more ownership for what they put into the digi-sphere and have a far greater awareness than what many do of how little protection they have in the event that their data falls into the wrong hands due to something as simple as careless disposal of a computer or storage device. And leaving a drive password protected or encrypted is not enough.
It's a slightly different ethical and possibly legal scenario if somebody actually goes as far as to try and recover data that has been for all intents and purposes destroyed. Doing that just makes you a contemptable individual or a government intelligence official. Even so, legally from what I can gather with my limited knowledge of IP and privacy laws, and with seperate laws pertaining to copyright and usage aside, if data has been discarded into the public in anyway it is still not really covered by any hard law except in a few exceptional circumstances... even if it did have to be run through some kind of whizzbang data recovery process to get to it. This is something it's taken people a long time to grasp. Whilst analogue data has finite copies and can be destroyed entirely at will with varying degrees of simplicity or difficulty, digital data, particularly in the age of the internet and with the culture of questionable ethics that surrounds it, leaves traces and prints that are far more difficult to completely destroy than your average Joe is fully aware of.
So in a nutshell, I have no real ethical or legal concerns about picking up an old Mac somewhere, switching it on and having a ferret around through it's directory system. Sure, I don't go out of my way to find and view... nor indeed do I even have the tiniest degree of interest in... people's personal data and documents, however if I happen to stumble across them and see something that doesnt concern or interest me in the process of scoping out the 10 years worth of cool shareware, freeware, or abandonware for which I don't own the license, I'm certainly not going to be in the slightest bit worried about being considered morally corrupt. I just move right along with my business, and eventually the old documents get shafted into the trash to make way for cool stuff I actually want. At the end of the day if a drive has System 6 on it, I'm certainly not going to format it just to meet some kind of imaginary ethical obligation, only to have to pull out my crusty old System 6 floppies and install it again... or the now equally crusty 10 year old backups...