Emulators are computer programs that, as their name suggests, “emulate” hardware through software. There are emulators all kinds of machines, everything from old computers to old calculators, but the emulators most gamers are familiar with are emulators that play console games. The emulation scene exploded in the mid-90s and has continued to grow ever since. Today there are literally hundreds of emulators available, covering the majority of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles and computer systems.
Unfortunately, without any games to play, emulators don’t do much. The game images that cartridge-based console emulators run are referred to as ROMs, which are software dumps of the original code contained on those old cartridges. Finding most ROMs is typically only a Google search away, but the legality of downloading those ROMs has been hotly contested — ask a dozen gamers and you’re liable to get a dozen different opinions. Some gamers claim that since those old games are no longer sold, downloading the ROMs of those games is legal. (It’s not; they’re still copyrighted, whether or not they’re currently being sold.) Others claim that it’s legal to download ROMs, but only of games you physically own. This is actually also not true. The basis of this legend comes from an old law that gave consumers the legal right to back up the software they purchased. This law specifically deals with software stored on volatile media (ie: floppy disks), and does not cover media stored in ROM format. In 1983, Atari sued a company named JS&A for creating an Atari 2600 backup device, citing that exact law. Atari won. Years later, Nintendo cited the same law in their legal assault against Bung Enterprises, the makers of multiple Nintendo 64 console copiers. So if downloading ROMs is illegal, what’s a gamer to do?
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