In the last ten years, many gamers have asked the question: Are video game ROMs illegal? Emulators are essentially computer programs which mimic older console platforms, such as the Nintendo Entertainment System; Roms are files of the video games themselves, often free to download online to be stored on a computer in a .zip file. For many years, the general consists among ROM and emulator enthusiasts is a belief that both are completely legal if the user owns both the original console and a physical copy of the ROM video game.
Unfortunately, this is widespread belief is incorrect.
Video game ROMs are illegal, even if you own a physical copy of the titles.
The official Nintendo website directly answers the question about whether or not ROMs are legal without any ambiguity:
“There is a good deal of misinformation on the Internet regarding the backup/archival copy exception. It is not a “second copy” rule and is often mistakenly cited for the proposition that if you have one lawful copy of a copyrighted work, you are entitled to have a second copy of the copyrighted work even if that second copy is an infringing copy. The backup/archival copy exception is a very narrow limitation relating to a copy being made by the rightful owner of an authentic game to ensure he or she has one in the event of damage or destruction of the authentic. Therefore, whether you have an authentic game or not, or whether you have possession of a Nintendo ROM for a limited amount of time, i.e. 24 hours, it is illegal to download and play a Nintendo ROM from the Internet.”
The amount of free ROM websites has greatly diminished over the last five years, but many still exist. The majority of these websites promote the falsity that ROMs and emulators are legal if you own the physical copy, or if you download but delete the video game ROM within a 24-hour period. Emulators continue to exist in a grey area, as they are programs developed by individuals to play illegal ROMs but do so without infringing on the original technology of the gaming console the title was intended for.
In the eyes of the Nintendo Corporation, any possession of a video game ROM is illegal'”and the popularity of these stolen virtual goods has cost the company millions. “Such emulators have the potential to significantly damage a worldwide entertainment software industry which generates over $15 billion annually, and tens of thousands of jobs.” Any video game enthusiast who supports the products and services provided by the hard-working men and women at Nintendo should consider the unseen ramifications of their illegal ROM downloads.
Although information regarding other company’s stance on video game ROM is not as easily obtained, it is fairly safe to assume that the stance made public by Nintendo reflects all of the companies in the gaming industry.
What about websites with ROMs which do not require download?
One of the latest fads in the video game ROM community is the popular of websites with video game ROMs which do not require download onto your personal computer; most of these sites don’t even require site membership, likely generating funding by ad venue rather than membership fees. Much like websites which illegally stream TV shows and movies which are a copyright infringement, these Java or Flash-based ROM sites are likely to be short-lived.
But are they illegal for gamers to use?
Once again, players will find themselves in a grey area regarding the legal ramifications'”but even if you are breaking no laws by playing a ROM you don’t have to download, you are supporting a website which is breaking copyright laws.
From the Terms of Service of the NesCafe online emulator:
“This website allows you to play Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games online using the NESCafe emulator. Despite some of these games being approximately 20 to 30 years old their copyright may still be protected by the software companies involved with their production, or by Nintendo themselves. Therefore, you should only play Nintendo games that you legally own the original cartridge for as otherwise you may be breaking the law in your country. Please, always respect copyright.”
As you can see, NesCafe is basing its Terms of Service on false rumors about Nintendo’s stance on video game ROMs. As reported above, Nintendo does not allow the possession of video game ROMs, no matter if a physical copy of the ROM is in possession of the player.
Why are ROMs and emulators so popular?
For many video game lovers, the progression of time and technological advancements in the gaming industry have resulted in beloved titles becoming obscure and wholly unplayable as vintage consoles become more obsolete. The development of Nintendo’s Virtual Console has done wonders to alleviate this problem, making hundreds of beloved but obsolete titles available for permanent download on the Nintendo Wii system.
Many video game companies have released “Best Of” collections, which feature several highly successful but mostly unsupported video games for a modern platform. Nintendo has also started revisiting the classics by releasing new chapters of popular franchises, such as “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” and “Donkey Kong Country Returns.”
With these advancements in the availability of vintage console video games, the decision to download illegal ROMs and emulators is even more unnecessary. If you enjoy older video games, use the legal and proper methods of obtaining working copies of those titles'”otherwise, you are not only breaking the law, you are denying the original developers, producers and creators of the titles the compensation and consideration they deserve.
Nintendo – Corporate Information, “Legal Information (Copyrights, Emulators, ROMs, etc.)”
NesCafe Play, “Terms of Service”