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Saturday, February 21: Are Emulators Legal?

Ed Lee and Roger Chang

Emulator ROMs are the code for the games, so they're like individual cartridges for the emulators, which represent the game consoles. The code is converted into binary and fed through a custom-made device into a PC that turns it into an archive. "Often the cartridge reader and software is strictly a homemade affair, so a ROM archivist has to be very technically inclined," William Cassidy of ClassicGaming.com says.

Classic Video Game Sites

The ROM-making community is quite small and, as a result, not nearly as visible as the music file traders. Although the two forms of digital entertainment are quite different, the legal ramifications of sharing intellectual property are similar.

"This is a thorny issue," Cassidy says regarding the legalities of emulators and ROMs. Because emulators are simply reverse-engineered original software that is usually not bundled with ROMs, they are perfectly legal, much like the Gnutella software is considered legal because it only acts as a conduit.

But the ROMs are a different matter. "The program code of a cartridge or arcade machine is the intellectual property of the game's designers or copyright holders," Cassidy points out. Creating a ROM is permissible by the same laws that allow you to make backup copies of software you own—an important caveat being that you cannot then sell the ROMs. "Some people sell ROM packages anyway, but this is almost always illegal. Likewise, you cannot legally download a ROM file unless you own the game in another form," Cassidy explains.

Some intellectual property holders have officially relinquished their rights over their games, and thus these games are considered "free." For the arcade game Robby Roto and the entire library of the long-discontinued Vectrex home console system, the possibility for profit has long since been abandoned, so why make the games available?

"The issue is legality vs. preservation," Cassidy says. "For every game (such as Pac-Man) that is still supported by its owners (Hasbro) and has profit potential, there are hundreds of games that would likely never see the light of day again if it weren't for ROM distribution."

Consoles such as the Amstrad CPC computer, the Bally Professional Arcade console, the Turbografx-16, and hundreds of less famous arcade games might have vanished without the Internet, Cassidy claims. "They would likely disappear forever if people didn't participate in quasi-legal ROM distribution. In these cases, distribution hurts no one's profits (often the companies involved have long since disappeared), so emulation proponents argue, what's the harm?"

When video game companies or intellectual property holders have asked sites to remove the ROMs, they quickly complied. "I am unaware of any legal action being taken against these sites," Cassidy says. "Most of them are perfectly willing to remove the ROMs once they realize that someone actually cares."

It's a sharp contrast to the perceived copyright violations obsessing the music industry. It's most definitely a reflection of the makeup of the different communities and corporations at play.

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