So, you’re thinking about or already are emulating your favourite retro games. You may have heard a lot of different people say a lot of different things about the law on emulating video games. Everything from “it’s a harmless and victimless pastime” to “you’re public enemy number 1”. So, what is the law on emulating retro games?
Downloading copyrighted games from the internet for emulation purposes is very much illegal. This applies for both ROMs and ISO files. Contrary to popular belief, this is still the case even if you own a physical copy of the game. Either way, emulating video games you’ve downloaded is still considered to be video game piracy. Similarly, linking to or hosting copyrighted content is against the law, even if said game is no longer available for purchase.
Emulating video games – is it ever legal?
Technically, yes. There are instances where emulating retro games is legal. The only way you can legally emulate a copyrighted video game is if you make your own copy of it or pay the license holder using an approved method. Any copy must come from a game you already own. This is considered fair practice according to the law.
This copy would act as a backup if your original copy is lost or destroyed. If you make a copy of your game, you must not under any circumstances distribute those files to others. The distribution of video game ROMs and ISO files is illegal and furthermore, selling said files could land you in very hot water.
Are there retro video games that can be legally downloaded?
If a game isn’t copyrighted, then it can be legally downloaded and played on an emulator. This may apply to certain “homebrew” games that were created and put into the public domain. A homebrew game is an original game made by an outsider, which was created using official development software for a particular console.
Some development software was made available to the general public. This includes software found in the likes of the Net Yaroze, Linux for PS2 and Microsoft XNA. Other development software is likely to have been leaked through the procurement of developer consoles such as the Nintendo Dolphin.
Which video games are “public domain” due to copyright expiration?
Legally, after 75 years a piece of copyrighted material becomes available to the public domain. At the time of writing, there is not a video game that exits which is older than 75 years. The first ever electronic amusement device, for example, was the cathode-ray tube amusement device (sounds exhilarating). This device was created in 1947 (making it 71 years old in 2018).
The first video games were created in the 1950s, with the first for entertainment purposes being in 1958. Tennis for Two, created by William Higginbotham is only 60 years old at the time of writing this.
Are emulators illegal?
Although detested by some video game companies, emulators technically don’t break any laws. Emulators merely offer a means to play copyrighted material such as ROMs and ISO files. Companies such as Nintendo, for example, use emulation technology to bring you such products as the NES and SNES Mini. Of course, that’s their property so they have the legal right to do that.
Think of it this way. If you’re under the legal age to drink, it’s not illegal to have an empty bottle of alcohol in your possession. It’s the possession of alcohol that’s illegal, not the packaging. With that said, both are pretty much mutually exclusive in order to be able to use properly. One without the other means you’ve either got an empty bottle or wet hands.
How do I create ROMs from my game carts?
In order to create a ROM file, you need a particular piece of hardware. A Kazzo (not the instrument) for example allows you to rip ROM files from physical NES cartridges. Alternatively, a Retrode allows for the dumping of Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis) games. Other third-party software for the Retrode allows users to dump ROM files from GameBoy, Virtual Boy, Nintendo 64, Sega Master System, PC-Engine (Turbo GrafX) and Atari cartridges.
These devices work by connecting via USB to a PC or laptop. From here, files can then be read and copied. We’ll go into further details regarding this process at a later date.
Will I go to prison if I’m emulating video games?
I very much doubt it! If certain companies had their way they’d probably have you locked in the stocks and pelted with rotten tomatoes for an afternoon though. In some instances, you may get slapped with a fine if caught downloading copyrighted material.
The general consensus is that the attention is directed far more towards those distributing the material in the first place. If legal action was to be taken, it would be taken via the source.
Update: A Wild Nintendo Appears!
Lowe and behold, shortly after this article was written, Nintendo went after the distributors. Read Emuparadise Vs Nintendo – The War on Game Emulation for more details.