Emulation Legality

The legalities of running games and other software upon emulated systems are interesting, and complex.

It would seem advisable that anyone contemplating the use of emulators undertake research into this topic.

A flavour of the issues to be considered can be found in a pair of posts published in 2013 on the Game Central blog; written by reader ‘simjhpy (gamertag/Twitter) aka Ace Attorney’ (not an employee of the blog) these cover emulation from both a gamer’s, and a legal, perspective.

These posts are a) short, b) written by a lawyer (although not a specialist in intellectual property rights) and c) objective, interesting, and thought provoking

The Legality of Emulation, Part One:

The Legality of Emulation, Part Two:

From these posts, some pertinent quotes:

“The only truly safe legal advice I can give the GC readership is not to use emulators and ROMs together.”

“Are emulators legal?

Oddly enough the answer is yes. They are perfectly legal. There has been case law to this effect in both the UK and the USA”

“Are ROM images of games legal?

The short answer is no they are not. Therefore you shouldn’t download them and you absolutely shouldn’t upload them and make them available for other people to download.”

“What if I own the original cartridge/disc?”

– here the legalities become even more complex; the author raises several points that are well worth consideration.

Owning an original cartridge / cassette / floppy disk / CD etc. appears to be considered by many to be justification for use of the corresponding ROM / ISO game image. As with so much in the emulation arena, the legalities are again not clear cut.

Personally, as with the author of the above linked blog posts, I own original copies of a great many games encompassing a wide range of systems. I also own the physical consoles for which I have emulators (as noted above, emulating a system is legal, however many require BIOS images, which can be dumped from an original system given the right software and/or hardware. That is not to say that doing so results in a BIOS image which can be legally used)

As the article states, there appears to be a lack of clarity in many aspects of emulation, and it is important to know that the legality of running a game under emulation will differ for any given game image on any given system.

The author concludes his post with the following terse statement regarding running games under emulation:

“the only safe advice I can give to the GC readers is ‘don’t do it’”

See also:

Emulation legality and extracting images from your own game cartridges


2 thoughts on “Emulation Legality

  1. What is sad is, these games are just sitting around collecting dust in someone’s attack. Did the creator of these games create them to collect dust? I understand they wanted to make some money. Well then, why not make them more available at a low cost, where maybe the general public can buy and download them, like you would any app on your phone! I would like to see an interface similar to what the wii has that can be used on a pc, phone, tablet or on small board computers when you can legally purchase roms. Then people there would be less people hacking them and more people playing them! Example. develop an atari console app, them make roms for app available as an in app purchase, for like $1.99 or something.


    1. It’s a thorny issue for certain. The troubles seen with the various recent ZX Spectrum relaunch projects seem to stand testament to the difficulties involved in obtaining authorisation, IP, ownership, copyright, and so forth.


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