There’s nothing like playing retro video games from the good old days. Remember Super Mario World or the early Pokemon versions like FireRed and LeafGreen? Because these retro games and their consoles are hard to come by these days, many of us turn towards downloading ROMs and emulating these games onto our computers or mobile devices. It’s all in good fun, but what if we told you that emulating your favorite game might actually be illegal?
It’s easy to say that downloading ROMs goes against the copyright of video games, but the reality is actually more complicated than that. There is a lot of gray area in this issue because no copyright infringement case for downloading ROMs has ever been brought to court that we know of. Still, it pays to know whether emulating downloaded ROMs is safe and legal, and what game developers said about the issue.
First things first, emulators are completely legal
A video game console emulator is a software that allows your host device (your phone or laptop) to mimic the target console’s hardware, so you can play its games on your host device. Now, using an emulator alone is perfectly alright, and most intellectual property laws agree with this. Because it is just a piece of software, emulators usually do not carry any proprietary code, and using one does not violate any copyright law by itself.
However, emulators are practically useless without game files (or ROMs) that you can install and play. When using your emulator to run a ROM that was ripped and downloaded from the internet, that is when the debate of its legality comes in.
SEE ALSO: Best Game Boy Emulators for Android
Downloading ROMs is illegal, but ambiguously so
Unlike emulators, ROMs are proprietary content owned by game developers and are usually protected by copyright. Downloading unauthorized ROMs is a form of copyright infringement and is illegal, much like pirating movies and other forms of media. Copyright protection usually lasts for 75 years, so it will be long before any of your favorite video games become public domain, even the ones that are no longer in the market.
However, many enthusiasts argue that simply downloading ROMs for personal use can sometimes be allowed, like in instances where you are downloading a ROM of a game that you already have a physical copy of.
The Fair Use Argument
Such a scenario can be covered by the Fair Use Argument because you can use your copy of the game however you want, and that includes being able to save a backup copy or emulate it on your preferred device. It can be argued that there is no market harm for the developer because your emulation is not substituting for an actual purchase.
What about ripping your own ROMs? Some devices like the Retrode adapter can extract your game via USB, so you can emulate and play on your chosen device. As long as there is no distribution involved, this can also be covered by fair use.
Distributing ROMS is a completely different story
While the legality of downloading ROMs is a bit of a murky issue, there is no ambiguity when it comes to sharing them. Distributing ROMs, with or without commercial intent, is inarguably illegal.
Once you distribute a game, most of the people that download don’t have an authentic copy of the game, and chances are they’ll no longer purchase an authorized version. That can significantly decrease the game’s market and the developer’s revenues for that game.
In fact, Nintendo has previously filed a lawsuit in 2018 for millions against LoveROMS.co and LoveRETRO.co, two of the largest emulator websites that carried thousands of copyrighted ROMs for download. This move was unprecedented for Nintendo, but understandable for a game developer that has suffered millions in losses due to emulators.
Game developers took a stand
Going back to downloading ROMs, game developers have already spoken about the issue. As Nintendo points out, both downloading ROMs online and ripping your own ROMs are illegal, point-blank. In both of these cases, even if it’s just for personal use, you are still using an unauthorized copy of the game, which goes against its copyright protection.
Nintendo also explains that owning an authentic copy does not entitle you to infringe a second copy. As long as your game copy is not authorized by the game developer, you are pirating the game and that is illegal.
However, it must be noted that these arguments from both sides remain purely hypothetical. There hasn’t been any case brought to the court for simply downloading ROMs, possibly because there are simply too many individuals doing such and developers focus on going for high-impact entities like distributors.
It’s highly unlikely that game developers will come after individual gamers for downloading ROMs, but this is no reason to continue participating in piracy. The best way to support your favorite games is to purchase an authentic copy and respect the copyright.