Wannabe Wired: Game emulation making news thanks to Nintendo

If you keep up with the news, you may have seen some recent stories, buried under all the awful news of the world, about Nintendo’s latest litigation victims.

Nintendo has long been known for having an iron-grip on their intellectual property. And recently they won a lawsuit against a popular ROM site. The court has ordered the site to destroy all of their Nintendo ROMs and cough up over $2-million in damages.

For some this was welcome news, for others not so much, and for perhaps an even larger percentage of the population it was met with a collective shrug. Gaming emulation and the ROMs that are used by those emulators is, after all, a niche community.

Gaming emulation is the act of running software for a video game inside a non-native space. So, instead of playing, let’s say, Pokémon, on a Nintendo DS, emulators allow you to play them on your smartphone or computer.

Emulators are treasured for their ability to allow gamers to play classic video games without having to hunt down and pay exorbitant prices for the retro relics. Emulators themselves are perfectly legal to own, after all emulators are just software used to recreate a game system digitally. But ROMs, the digital recreation of video games that emulators run, are almost exclusively illegal to download and own.

There is one possible exception, though there isn’t much to back this up legally, many ROM sites declare that ROMs are safe to download if the user already owns a physical copy of the game they are downloading. This, many argue, is fair use.

Now, the reason the website I mentioned before got into legal trouble was because they were acting as a hub for users to download ROMs. This is unequivocally illegal, regardless of fair use.

Some users argue that ROMs of games that are no longer publicly available or are so rare or expensive that they basically become unavailable, makes the downloading of ROMs legal. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t suspect that argument would hold up in court.

Of course, for decades this wasn’t a real concern. Much like the pirating of music or movies, thousands of people download ROMs on a daily basis without ever having to worry about prosecution. But with companies like Nintendo filing, and now winning, lawsuits against the websites that host ROMs, the entire market could fold out of fear of a lawsuit.

But, if Napster’s collapse in the early aughts didn’t deter music pirates, something tells me this won’t do much to deter gamers who just want to enjoy a classic game.