Emulation Proclamation Part 1: The Legalities

May 03, 2013 / by / 0 Comment

The era of Hollywood-esque games has become the standard for high dollar designers like Infinity Ward, the company that designed the Modern Warfare series. Not only are these games graphically beautiful, the stories are told through dynamic movie sequences, arguably as captivating as a major motion picture. Even Halo fans agree the IW game engine is responsible for one of the most responsive game architectures in history to date for a first person shooter.

Some anxiously await the arrival of new game sequels. Search engines are scoured daily to find glimpses of new trailers and gameplay footage. Employers are alerted of black out times for availability so the midnight release may be attended (and the subsequent 72-game binge) when the game released is announced. I clearly remember many midnight releases like my first for the Nintendo GameCube, a nightmarish 10-hour wait in a tent outside of Walmart for the Wii and a 60-person tournament hosted at Game Stop for the release of Super Smash Bros Brawl.

Today, endless gaming sessions have taken a backseat to other hobbies and professional endeavors. Though I have spent a measurable portion of my life in front of a TV screen clutching a controller, I’ve missed a hit or two along the way, as is the case with most current and former gamers. The success of Nintendo’s Virtual Console makes clear that many are finding joy revisiting old games for a sense of nostalgia.

What is emulation?

In computing, emulation refers to the process where a host system (e.g. your computer) replicates the function of another computing system such as a Nintendo Entertainment System. Game emulators are software that act like the consoles of your past. A ROM (“Read Only Memory”, i.e. game file) is a copy of a file used by the emulator to produce the game. With their powers combined, it’s possible to relive classics, and fall in love all over again, before you remember the intense frustration of trying to navigate the awkward isometric pitfalls in Battletoads, which is why you broke up in the first place. Fortunately, decent PC and Mac gaming controllers are inexpensive. Furthermore, special benefits are inherent to some of the emulators that help circumvent temper tantrums.

Legal Emulation

Essentially, every platform today has the ability to run an emulator in some way, including your PC or Mac, your smartphone, and your Nintendo 3DS. Working emulators exist to run old favorites as well as custom “homebrew” titles for other platforms. Today’s major gaming consoles all make use of emulators to legally play classics you purchase from the Wii Shop Channel, the Playstation Network, and Xbox Live Marketplace.

If you have never used an emulator before, you will likely become curious and surf the net, which will unveil multiple hosting sites for emulators and ROMs. However, there are many IP and copyright laws that make the game emulation of classic console games technically illegal. Many of these sites have been running for years but that is because they provide appropriate disclaimers and theoretically own all the software and hardware available on the site. Kind of like how the show South Park states that it “should not be viewed by anyone”, many sites will state somewhere that you must own a copy of the game you’re downloading or follow the “24 hour rule”, which isn’t real.

Read the “fine print” before you game

First of all, you should be aware that anti-piracy programs, as established by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), protect games. Also, companies like Nintendo have rules in place for the use of their Intellectual Property (IP). It sounds scary, but Nintendo’s legal page is simply an attempt for the organization to appeal to its own faux authority. It is not set in stone and further, is not upheld in the legal system.

In actuality, with any software or digital platform, you are entitled to one copy for your own personal use. Legally, you must possess a physical copy of these items. You may not sell or distribute this content unless you’re prepared to face a lengthy prison sentence and heavy fines.  The following is a break down to help answer a common question asked by people interested in emulation:

Downloading and retaining an emulator is legal. Certain emulators have a completely unique BIOS (or none at all), which makes these emulators perfectly legal to download and possess. However, some emulators like ePSXe (a Sony Playstation emulator) require a BIOS file, which must either be a custom creation or ripped from your own console.

Downloading a ROM is illegal. Technically, you must make a copy from your own personal game. Even though the data is likely verbatim, the act of downloading the file is illegal. Yes, the “24-hour rule” is made up just like the Easter Bunny.

For games, you must possess a physical copy of the game to legally play on an emulator. Any emulator that directly uses a console’s OEM BIOS requires you to possess the physical system.

Don’t come crying to me if you take it upon yourself to hoard an entire library of games from an emulation site and a nasty letter comes from your ISP or the Feds come to your door with a warrant to look through your digital content. I recommend you do not steal. Keep in mind: It isn’t inconceivable for a ROM file to contain a virus.

Why do these sites exist?

The de facto speculated legal enforcement isn’t in hard effect despite the fact that obtaining free software from these sites affects the gaming industry. Basically, it is a cost issue. It is far more expensive to engage everyone who downloads a game from one of these sources. With that said, sites that charge for these games don’t last very long, as they are quickly shut down, and organizations may seek compensation for revenue gained by the illegitimate hosting site.

Emulating games is a great way to kill time, relive classics, and explore small developer’s creations. In Part 2, we’ll look at the right way to legally emulate games on your PC or Mac.


So the story goes: Art found Nick wandering downtown South Bend and he later asked Dan if we could keep him. Dan said “yes” and Nick came aboard. Nick splits his time writing for techie and working as a tech for virtualization company Cloud PC. When he’s not working, he occupies himself with music. Nick plays guitar and tinkers with other instruments – you’ll find him hanging around at local shows and occasionally jamming at various open mic nights.

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