Legality of Game Emulators

What is the legality of game emulators for a PC? I’ve heard that if you own/owned the game, it is legal, but is there any other time that it is legal?

It could be legal if the original creators gave up all rights to the game. This e-mail is an example of this for a game called Robby Roto.

Distribution of emulation software is absolutely legal. Distribution of ROM files for use with those emulators is legal, provided that you own the game. The cite provided refers to a situation where distribution of the ROM is legal whether you own the game or not. Selling ROM files is illegal whether the buyers own the game or not.
Generally speaking, if you download a ROM, you will be shown a disclaimer saying you must own this game blah blah and you have to click “OK”.

Robby Roto is in the public domain, made so by its creator, so that is an exception.

If memory serves me right, you are only legally allowed to keep an emulated game for 24 hours, unless you actually own a hard copy of the game.

never heard of the 24 hr law, can you give more about it

I believe the 24 hour thing is just a misguided attempt to walk the line of legality. The idea is that by trying the game for a short period of time, you are falling within the “fair use” aspect of copyright law. From 17 USC 107:

I really doubt this particular argument would go far in court. It just hasn’t been tested yet. Emulator sites are invariably run by teenagers or college students, who run in fear once that cease & desist letter arrives by registered mail.

I’m all for using emulators of the NES, Super NES, Genesis, Atari 7800, etc., since you can’t buy them anymore even if you wanted to. The company isn’t making any money off it. But once you start emulating newer game systems, and thus depriving companies of a just profit, that’s when I think it’s wrong.

Ugh, my head’s killing me. </excuse for not looking up links>

I believe that there is (if you believe these guys) a law that says that if a program has been out for X number of years and (presumably) no longer in production, that it may be distributed for free, legally. I’ll dig up a few sites that stand to live or die by from this law (and quote it, IIRC) tomorrow.


It’s my impression that companies actually lose money on the consoles[sup]1[/sup], with the intent that they’d be making enough profits on the games (both their own and licensing to third parties) to cover their losses. I read this in an article explaining why Sega was exiting the console business.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find it on a cursory search.

[sup]1 I assume that there’s a break-even point, probably after the next generation console is released, since they generally come out with a cheaper version of the console then (e.g. Sega Genesis III, still available for about $20).[/sup]

You are correct. To make a current example, the PS2 costs Sony much more than $300 to make. But it costs Sony much less than $50 to make the games. Plus it gets licensing fees from the games. And people usually buy only one console, but several games. And as time goes by, components for the console get cheaper, allowing for the price to drop.

First: Software emulators themselves are legal. The 24 hour law is baloney & having a legal rom copy just cause you own the game is also baloney. Nintendo writes about this often. Owning a backup unit is also not illegal unless you use it for something you shouldn’t be.

Second: The chances of getting caught are zippo.

My understanding is that it’s legal to have emulator software as long as you own the roms you’re running on it AND the software itself isn’t dependent on bios software for a system you don’t own (if you own the software it’s probably a moot point).

For example, you own Samurai Showdown for the NeoGeo, but for some reason you don’t own a NeoGeo. You can’t run it on NeoRage legally because NeoRage uses the actual bios files from a NeoGeo system. The same works for a few of the Playstation emus out there.

Reverse engineered emulators (such as Connectix’s VGS and Bleem (gag) are fine.