Hi, and thanks for this interesting question.
Unfortunately, after extensive research, and my prior knowledge, it is
evident that there is no easy answer to your question. However, the
lack of an answer is not due to lack of discussion or care for this
issue, but the complex nature of the laws involved with what you are
trying to do.
Firstly, downloading "ROMs" (Video Games that have been transferred
into a "Read Only Memory" format), is certainly illegal if you are not
in possession of the original - you are stealing intellectual
A good place to start this answer is at the Interactive Digital
Software Association website. This company, established in 1994,
protects the intellectual property of software developers, and the use
of emulators is a large factor of their work.
Interactive Digital Software Association
In a FAQ at the ISDA website, they state that it is perfectly legal to
make a backup copy of your legitimate copy. However, distributing
this copy, or obtaining a copy without the original, would be in
breach of the law:
"U.S. Copyright laws permit making a "backup" copy of computer
programs for archival purposes. However, the right to make backup
copies of computer programs for archival purposes, as embodied in 17
U.S.C. Section 117(2), does not in any way authorize the owner of a
copy of a video or computer game to post or download a copy of that
game to or from the Internet."
I understand by the phrasing of your question that you may be
concerned with the phrase "for archival purposes" in the above
passage. Obviously, this is still unclear.
"However, whether the use of ROMs is entirely illegal is still the
subject of much debate in the gaming industry."
The article quoted above relates interesting material and links in
regard to your question, and is definitely worth reading.
Nintendo also provide a FAQ about the copyright issues involved with
emulators and ROMs at the following website. Some of this text is
copied from the ISDA FAQ, but there is some information also worth
The following passage from the Nintendo FAQ, although somewhat final
and ruthless, is significant to your question:
"Are Game Copying Devices Illegal?
Yes. Game copiers enable users to illegally copy video game software
onto floppy disks, writeable compact disks or the hard drive of a
personal computer. They enable the user to make, play and distribute
illegal copies of video game software which violates Nintendo's
copyrights and trademarks. These devices also allow for the uploading
and downloading of ROMs to and from the Internet. Based upon the
functions of these devices, they are illegal. "
This is not absolutely true - you ARE allowed to make a backup copy.
I consulted a friend on the issue (he is a partner at a distinguished
law practice in my city), and he has told me that, strictly by a
technical application of the law, it would be illegal to play the game
on the computer, because the owner of the property has not
specifically given you the right to do so. However, he compared this
wrongdoing to jaywalking, or recording free-to-air television on a
video/DVD (assuming you own the game and a Gameboy Advance).
Nonetheless, you do own (and I assume purchased) the Gameboy Advance
game. If you also own a Gameboy Advance to play the game, you would
not be putting Nintendo at any profit loss by playing it on your
computer, as long as you do not distribute the copy.
Practically speaking, Nintendo would almost definitely not sue you for
playing their game on an emulator, if you owned the game and the
Gameboy Advance. This is because you are not withholding any
potential profit from their point of view.
You may also find this site interesting - it is a satirical reworking
of ISDA's pirating FAQ that I linked to earlier:
ISDA Frequently Avoided Questions
Please remember that many of these laws are still unclear, and a
definite answer is difficult to obtain. It is certainly morally
acceptable to play the game on the computer having already paid for
the game and the Gameboy Advance.
I hope this answers your question, and if you have any further queries
before rating my answer, please feel very free to do so!
Thanks again for the question.
copyright laws emulator roms