Are Emulators Illegal for Retro Gaming?

Many retro gamers have asked the question: Are emulators illegal?  The answer is no; you can download them without a problem. Don’t get excited, though. The emulators are legal, but they are kind of useless on their own.

So, if you were looking to get your hands on some free classic games while following the letter of the law (how paragon of you), you are going to run into some legal obstacles. 

Let’s get a little deeper into the subject of using emulators for retro consoles and games and look at where ROMs fit into the situation. Not everything is as clear-cut as you might imagine.

Just a few quick disclaimers: 1). This is not legal advice. 2). I’m not saying you should download and use ROMs. 3). I’m talking about retro games that are 20+ years old. 

Why Are Emulators Legal?

Just a simple program interface, nothing illegal about it.

Emulators are legal because they are programs designed to use specific files called ROMs, and emulators are useless without them.

Conversely, let me answer this question with a question. What are emulators?  Simply put, emulators are computer programs that are designed to act like other computer systems, such as video game systems. 

For example, a Sega Genesis emulator for PC is essentially a program that mimics the function of the system. Hypothetically, this could  allow you to play digital copies of various retro N64 games but only if you were to download the ROMs.

Emulators are legal because they are programs that do not contain any copyrighted code.  It’s like when you buy a glass pipe from your local gas station. The signs say that they’re for tobacco use only but we all know that they can be used for something else, like the devil’s lettuce. 

For tobacco use only

Even though everyone knows how emulators are used, they are legal because they do not infringe on any copyrights in most cases and they are basically inert on their own. 

Are ROMs Illegal?

As you can see, a LOT of people enjoy ROMs

Yes, ROMs are illegal in the vast majority of cases. Why? ROMs are illegal in just about every case since they are the game files emulators use to allow people to play games. 

ROM files contain proprietary code that belongs to the company that made the video game or obtained the property afterward.

In the eyes of courts and the  legal departments at many big video game companies, downloading a ROM is the same as making an unauthorized copy of the video game. It’s as simple as that.

You can have the bong, but you can’t have what you smoke in it. 

Still, some people have posed questions about whether there are times when you can use ROMs in special circumstances.

Retro ROMs Raise Interesting Questions

Is there any time when emulators and ROMs could be right?

Let me start off by saying downloading retro ROMs is just as illegal as downloading new ROMs. Still, some gamers have brought up certain interesting questions about the legality of these files. 

1. Can I download ROMs of games I already own?

Under Fair Use laws, it might be defensible to obtain ROMS of games that you already own. I’m not saying you should do this, but if there was any case where it could be construed as legal, this is it. 

After all, you purchased the game, so what does it matter if you play it on your phone or PC if you originally bought access to the game on your SNES?

Still, if you downloaded the game you own and give the copy to a friend, I think the plausibility of that defense goes out the window.

2. Will the government bust down my door for using ROMs?

You could find all sorts of communities filled with people that download and use ROMs. You could probably do it with some combination of “emulator” and “group.” People are using them all the time to play retro games. 

I would not expect a visit from the police for ripping a copy of a game, but it’s not as though you couldn’t get in trouble if you were somehow discovered.

However, you have to remember that your ISP can see what you’re downloading, and if it’s from a site that has been tagged, they could cut services or do some other nonsense. Basically, you’re trusting Comcast not to snitch you out.

From my experience on the forums and as a long-time gamer, you are more likely to get a DCMA violation notice from your ISP for downloading ROMs than you are to have someone haul you off to jail.

I have never heard of this happening to people emulating anything PS1 or earlier, though. It might not be worth the effort on the part of the video game company.

3. Are some ROMs safer to download than others?

From what I have seen, it appears as though companies are mostly concerned about going after people that are taking money out of their pockets. Some brands are famously defensive of their old products because they want to sell them to you again and again

Others can’t be bothered to act because they are no longer around or they would rather focus on their new products. Take from that what you will. They are still illegal. 

4. Are emulators safe?

Some emulators are safe and others are not. If you were to download an emulator (just to see how it works and not to use it), it would be best to check out reviews and see which ones have the best reputation. 

In a sense, the legality of emulators and ROMs is pretty cut and dry. As you can see from the questions above, some areas of the law are still a little unclear. 

Is It Morally Defensible to Save ROMs for Games Out of Production?

What would you do if we lost all the classics? Not these; this is garbage

I have posed this question to friends and fellow gamers from time to time. Always in hushed voices in case the man is listening. 

If a retro game that I love is no longer being made, ultra-rare, or there is no means to purchase it, is it morally wrong to download it? What about in cases where downloading a ROM is not taking money away from a company because they are not around to collect it?

What about times when a company has abandoned the game and is willing to let it disappear? Shouldn’t somebody that loves the title do something to save it? 

Personally, I think people should aim to preserve games, but I can’t say it would be wise to tell massive numbers of people what you’re doing or try to profit from it. I would hate for Final Fantasy Legend to disappear once the parent company has wrung out the last few dollars for it and takes it off the digital market. 

I would also hate to deprive myself of the entertainment of less-popular games that I enjoyed but realize that the company would be insane to restore, like Ehrgeiz. On one hand, I know it’s not legal to steal the game. On the other hand, is it worth letting it disappear into the retro game ether?

Final Thoughts on ROMs and Emulators

Ah, and it was such a good picture, too!

Retro gamers could be facing a bit of a crisis of consciousness and legality in years to come. Older games will become rarer as they fall into the hands of collectors, scalpers, and trash bins. 

The companies that have the ability to re-release old favorites right now may not be around in another 20 years or so. That is an article for another time, though. 

For now, just remember that emulators are legal, ROMs are illegal, and that everything in this article, while researched, is not coming from a lawyer.

I don’t wanna hear anything if you rip a copy of Super Mario Bros. and get dragged off to some government black site and hooked up to a car battery. You can’t say I didn’t warn you. 

Where do you stand on the emulation issue? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to smash that ‘like’ button. Just kidding. You do you. 

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