Preserving Video Games – Emulators and Copyright Laws

It is interesting that Mr. Lowood and his teams’ canon list for preserving video games is modeled similar to the work of the National Film Preservation Board. During the course of the semester we have looked at how films and games are intertwined or draw off each other (especially games drawing from film). It makes sense than that to preserve these games they would use a method similar to what is done for film.

I had to read the article twice to figure out why video games needed to be preserved officially. I understood how these were revolutionary games, but it was during the second read through that I took in how the difference of hardware can render a game unusable. I naively assumed that new hardware was old hardware with additional features and that everything was backwards compatible. This is not the case. New hardware works differently from the old and unless old hardware is preserved, old games won’t be able to be preserved. The work around is a method we are familiar with – using an emulator to play ROMs (digital copies of old games). This brings me to the most surprising new information I got out of the article – that emulators break copyright laws. Mr. Lowood plainly states that emulators “technically violate copyright laws.” Looking this up, I found that emulators appear to be legal, but ROMs are not. It’s legal to have the ability to play the game but if you download a ROM it is illegal. Nintendo’s website on Legal Information (Copyright, Emulators, ROMs, etc) has more information on this which is relatively clear. I speculate that some companies legitimize emulators and allow ROMs of their old games to be played. It would be interesting to look into this further and clarify the legality of emulators and ROMs.

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1 Response to Preserving Video Games – Emulators and Copyright Laws

  1. Jason Ko says:

    Emulators are not and, if current copyright law persists, will never be illegal. They are created by reverse engineering and then reimplementing the logic which game consoles use to turn stored game data into the games that we play. This process of reverse engineering can be done without directly copying any code (called clean room development) which results in a perfectly legal product. However, ROMs must be extracted from the storage media which houses the game, and thus are directly copied data. This is illegal, as the downloaded of these ROMs does not have the right do this data. Some argue that if you have a legal copy of the game, downloading a ROM is thus legal. Others attest that the process of extracting the ROM is in and of itself illegal, thus rendering all ROMs illegal regardless of who owns them.

    I do not know of any company which LEGITIMIZES freely distributable emulators. There are systems like the Wii’s Virtual Console, which is a sanctioned system of emulation, but these emulators are not open to public consumption outside of the Wii’s platform. Those ROMs which float around on the internet do so because it would be prohibitively expensive to sue, or because the publisher/developer has some other source of apathy/negligence. It is also partially because it is almost impossible to stop information from being spread over the internet once it is first transmitted.

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