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  • Retro-Gaming: Emulators, ROMs and Abandonware
Technology Articles > Entertainment > Games > Retro-Gaming: Emulators, ROMs and Abandonware

They say the classics never go out of style—but that doesn’t stop them from going out of production. From the original Atari gaming system to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), many of the video gaming systems of yore have stood the test of time in terms of fun factor and replayability. But as technology progresses, it seems that many games from the 20th century have been left behind. Today’s PCs and next generation consoles are simply incompatible with the clunky, yet endearing cartridges and floppy disks of yesterday.

The appreciation of older games is kept alive by communities of retro-gaming enthusiasts, who have devised a number of ways to keep their classic games playable, even as technology marches on. The legality and authenticity of the gameplay varies, but for the determined gamer, there are few titles that can’t be accessed in some way shape or form.

Emulators are programs that run on other consoles or on computers. As the name suggests, these emulators mimic the operating system of a specific console, such as a Gameboy, NES or Sega. Because computers can’t read cartridges, however, games must be loaded as ROM files. ROM images are copies of cartridges that have been dumped into a digital format so they can be read by emulators. In order to play a classic game on your computer, you must have both a ROM and an emulator.

Emulators themselves do not pose many legal concerns, as they are often created and developed from the ground up by third-parties. However, ROMs are copies of copyrighted materials. Just like you cannot legally make copies of audio CDs and distribute them, it is illegal to download or share unlicensed ROMs. Many ROM distributors argue that is legal to traffic in ROMs as long as the end user already owns a physical copy of the game. However, a 1983 court case Atari vs. JS&A ruled that it was illegal to create backups of games by copying them to other cartridges. The legal status of ROMs is unclear. However, since many game developers that owned the rights to the games are defunct, illegal trading of ROMs often occurs without prosecution.

When software developers cease supporting or distributing titles, they are classified informally as “abandonware.” While some assume that abandonware is free from copyright obligations, this is not true. Ceasing production or support of a title does not imply that the copyright has expired. However, some companies do relicense old software as freeware or give it to the public domain. Given that copyright protection for works created after 1978 lasts for a minimum of 70 years, there are likely no desirable software titles that have entered into the public domain via expiration. Before downloading so-called abandonware, you may wish to check to see if the copyright holder has relicensed it.

Official ROMs
The interest in retro-gaming has spurred some game developers to re-release old games. For example, Nintendo’s Virtual Console for Wii allows you to download games from older systems onto your Wii. These games are properly licensed and, because you purchase them, are legal for private use. (Distribution of commercial ROMs carries the same legal penalties as distributing other unlicensed copyrighted material, however.) Likewise, the PlayStation Store and the X-Box Live Arcade store also have re-releases of selected older games.

Through emulation, ROMs and re-releases, the legacy of classic gaming lives on. If you are concerned about the letter of the law, a good general rule of thumb is that if you pay for the ROM through an official channel (such as Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft), it’s probably just as legal and legitimate as buying it off the shelf. But for ROMs trade for free over the Internet, the law is less clear. While you won’t likely go to jail for downloading an obscure ROM from 30 years ago, it is still technically illegal.

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