The Legality of Video Game Emulation
Nearly everyone likes to play console video games, whether the console is the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Genesis, or the Sony PlayStation. But consoles break down, and the popularity of personal computers gave way to a special category of software called emulators, such as Nesten for the NES, KGen for the Genesis, or bleem! for the PlayStation. Emulators were not created to play video games; in fact, according to the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, emulation means either “to imitate the functions of (another computer system) by means of software” or “to replace (software) with hardware to perform the same task” (429).
The term emulator comes directly from IBM employee Larry Moss, who in 1964 coined it for computer use when describing his proposal to the company for the IBM 7070 mainframe, which would run “the same software, but on a different machine,” namely, the forthcoming IBM System/360 computer series (“Sharing” 2). Emulation became a standard tool for cross-compatibility and sheer impressibility during the next 25 years, mainly beginning in 1980 with Microsoft’s Z80 SoftCard, which ran CP/M software on the Apple II (“Basis” 7) and culminating in 1989 with the release of the impressive Readysoft A-Max, a hardware/software adapter that worked with Macintosh BIOS ROMs to run the MacOS on the Commodore Amiga (“History” 3.2). The hardware BIOS ROMs—which had to be purchased from Apple—were later eliminated by hackers and replaced with faster software ROMs (3.2). Apple was obviously angered by this, but could do nothing, for the A-Max had users legally use purchased BIOS ROMs and MacOS boot disks, and the illegal use of software-copied and distributed BIOS ROMs was by individual users and not endorsed by Readysoft in any way (“Basis” 10). By not challenging Readysoft in court, Apple set the “A-Max precedent,” which states that
“It is lawful for a third party to develop an unauthorized emulator for a proprietary system, provided that said emulator cannot be shown to violate the intellectual property rights of the original system vendor in any way.” (12)
Emulation, and ROMs (used by itself hereafter to refer to the disk-image of a video game cartridge) are legal, if presented in the right format and used in the right way.
What is the right format for an emulator? The best possible format would be the first example, of IBM emulating its own software. In the video game world, this is almost unheard of, with the exception of Sega and programmer Steve Snake, author of KGen. After releasing his freeware Genesis/MegaDrive (MegaDrive being the Japanese equivalent of the Genesis) emulator in 1997 (“History” 3.8), Snake collaborated with Sega in 1998 to retool the emulator and have Sega release it on as the Sega Smash Pack packaged with re-released Genesis games, built in to the emulator (“1999” 4,5).
There is also the example of bleem! (Note: the software’s title is properly in...