I have heard a lot of talk about how emulation is not illegal, or that downloading ROMs is legal in some circumstances but not others, and I would really like to clarify what is allowed about emulators and ROMs in relation to the law.

For instance, I've heard that downloading and using emulators is fine, but downloading ROMs is not. Does this seem a bit contrived? Who would download an emulator just to have it sit there? This doesn't seem realistic to me.

I've also heard that one can download ROMs for a 24/48 hour period, but then must delete them, unless you own the game physically. If this is true, this also doesn't seem realistic. But even so, why hasn't someone created a service that allows you to download ROMs that automatically expire after 24/48 hours, which you would then have to purchase to continue playing? It seems workable to me, yet no such service is available that I've seen.

There are other things I'd like to know too, like whether or not one could get in trouble for downloading ROMs of games no longer being sold, or for hosting emulators or ROMs on a website (perhaps for personal use only?), or what the law differences might be between different generations of consoles, etc.

So, what exactly is allowed about emulators and ROMs, in relation to the law?

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    we are not lawyers, the answer can differ based on juristiction. (not to mention, ROMs are usually unauthorized copies of copyrighted content.) Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 20:11
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    This was migrated because it was asked just when a few posts that referenced this topic were deleted; so this question seems to be in the spirit of "why can't I ask or answer where to download ROMS?" which would make it a meta question.
    – juan
    Commented Aug 7, 2010 at 23:23

4 Answers 4


I'm not going to bore you with the specific DMCA regulations (you can look them up yourself if you really want to) but suffice to say they're almost always illegal. Emulators aren't because they don't violate any law, ROMs violate copyright laws. So while it doesn't make sense to use emulators without ROMs, it is legal. Just like it is legal to have an empty beer bottle if you're under 16 but not have alcohol.

There is no 24/48 hour exemption. Linking to copyrighted content, hosting it and downloading it is always illegal.

You can get in trouble for downloading ROMs of games no longer sold as well, and hosting illegal content is illegal too.

Nintendo explains it pretty well on their legal page.

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    I'd like to add that the ONLY time that you can legally have a ROM is if it was 1) purposefully released into the public domain by the copyright owner, 2) was given or sold to you by the copyright owner, 3) has had its copyright expire (75 years after publication, i.e. no video games until well into this century), or 4) it is an archival copy that YOU created for backup purposes (it cannot be a downloaded copy)
    – BarrettJ
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 20:27
  • Thank you for answering my questions. The main point seems to be "avoid ROMs" so I think we'll leave it at that.
    – Bara
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 20:42
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    @BarrettJ that's 70 years after the author's death in most countries, otherwise you're spot on. It depends on jurisdiction, there are also countries in which it is either much longer or shorter.
    – user56
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 20:58
  • Emulators can be illegal too. Also, the nintendo legal page isn't amazing description of the relevant law; it's a little biased, but it's decent.
    – McKay
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 21:26
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    It's fully accurate though. And no, emulators, the parts of software that emulate something are never illegal. If the emulator contains copyrighted or otherwise illegal content the package will be illegal though.
    – user56
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 21:36
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    @Arda It has been argued that emulators are a violation of the DMCA. Even though it's an original work, it enables users to bypass copyright. That the hardware controlls access to the games.
    – McKay
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 22:16
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    No. The ROM creation software would enable users to bypass copyright. Emulators have completely valid use for say homebrew, or playing self-made backups.
    – user56
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 23:38
  • @Arda actually, copy right has been extended in such a way that nothing made in the last century is going to be out of copyright until half way through this century at the very least, so I doubt companies battling for IP are going to do so in the spirit of the law. It is interesting to note, however, that ROM creation software cannot be made illegal for the same reason we're allowed to encrypt data: it's a repression of freedom of speech. One could say that cars are a violation of the law because they allow bank robbers to make their getaways. Try that one in court... Commented Aug 8, 2010 at 1:04
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    @Arda when I said "It has been argued that emulators are a violation of the DMCA" I was saying that because it's true. It has been argued that. Nintendo essentially argues that on the legal page you mentioned. Because it enables people to play illegal roms. The Nintendo itself is a technological measure. By making an emulator, and offering it, you are helping others bypass that hardware technological measure.
    – McKay
    Commented Aug 9, 2010 at 22:06
  • How exactly is a "self-made" backup made, I wonder? Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 17:51
  • @Shotgun for any device from the last ~15 years or so? By means that violate the anti-circumvention provision of the DMCA and it's WIPO-signatory equivalents. Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 17:54
  • @McKay a RaspberryPi allows people to play illegal roms, but it can also be used for legal purposes. Same for emulators. Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 17:19
  • @jinglesthula Yeah, so are computers? But it's the emulators on the raspberry pi that are more the problem. Don't get me wrong. I think Emulators probably should be legal, and that copying the ROMs around the Internet should be illegal, but there is a legal case to be made that it's really hard to make an emulator (of an NES) without violating the copyright of the manufacturer (of the NES).
    – McKay
    Commented Sep 30, 2017 at 1:07

So, ROM is the data inside a cartridge, but it also refers to the copy of that data on a cartridge.

It is generally considered legal to make a backup / archival copy of a ROM yourself. Though if you have to bypass some DRM to do so, it might or might not be illegal. The law isn't as clear here, and it depends on what the DRM is.

If you have a (copyrighted) ROM (which they almost always are) and you make it available for copy, you are almost certanly in violation of the law.

Downloading ROMs hosted by others is another grey area. Theoretically, if they're offering it for download, you might be able to legally presume that they have the rights to distribue the ROM. They could have acquired those rights. It's like buying stolen goods on ebay. You aren't the one in violation of the law. The law is definitely unclear on this though.

(I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice)

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    The law is very clear on this area. "No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title." Also, buying goods which you know are stolen is illegal. If anything it constitutes inciting crime.
    – user56
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 23:53
  • By the way, where is this "backup / archival exemption"? I can't find it anywhere in the DMCA.
    – user56
    Commented Aug 6, 2010 at 23:59
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    @Arda Jailbreaking was ruled legal by Library of Congress under interpretation of DMCA. DMCA has provisions for Fair Use which have been hotly disputed (like the right to put music from a cd on your mp3 player, or the short lived minidisc players) or making backups of your DVD's. While McKay is correct in stating that you can plead ignorance in court, the fact is you can still be taken to court. Commented Aug 8, 2010 at 1:08
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    We can't provide any legal advice based on possible future interpretations of the law though.
    – user56
    Commented Aug 8, 2010 at 19:19
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    @Arda backup / archival is legal, according to fair use. The courts have been arguing over which is stronger, fair use or the DMCA. Current rulings imply that fair use is stronger. But, If you don't break an encryption or other technological measure, backup (for personal use) is very clearly, totally legal. e.g. if I have an encrypted Blu-ray disk, it's legal for me to make a backup / archive of the encrypted form of the blu-ray, because I'm not overriding a technological measure. I'm just making a copy. The same rule generally applies to directly copying a ROM.
    – McKay
    Commented Aug 9, 2010 at 21:54
  • Alright then. We can tell him how to make a backup. It's a bit of a waste of a Wii disc to make a copy you can't use however.
    – user56
    Commented Aug 10, 2010 at 14:27
  • If you buy stolen goods on eBay, and the police discover the theft and trace the goods, they will repossess them ... if the analogy holds, then you aren't breaking the law as long as you aren't aware that the ROMs are illegally hosted, but you also don't own them once you download them. I think the problem with the analogy is that almost all stolen goods can be bought legitimately elsewhere on eBay, but there are presumably very few places that have legally distributed ROMs (given the discussions above about copyright). Commented Apr 18, 2011 at 15:54
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    @user56 check out Section 117 of the US copyright code - law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/117 for more on the permissibility to make backups copies of their own software for personal use. That section also says those copies "may be leased, sold, or otherwise transferred, along with the copy from which such copies were prepared, only as part of the lease, sale, or other transfer of all rights in the program."
    – Jon
    Commented Jul 28, 2019 at 11:47
  • @Jon Your quote applies broadly across all copyrighted software. And you are correct that copying software is not in violation of that portion of the law. But what about the DMCA? Nintendo argues that the cartridge is a technological measure which controls access to copyrighted works. Therefore they claim that making the backup is a violation of the DMCA.
    – McKay
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 17:37
  • why is DMCA any different for games than say CDs?
    – Jon
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 11:06
  • @Jon Because there is no "technological measure" preventing you from copying the CDs. It's something that your computer was designed to do. That's basically the purpose of the CD drive. How do you copy the ROM off of a cartridge? You arguably have to build something to bypass that technological measure. By comparison, the DVD (and BluRay) manufacturers put in an encryption method onto the video content, so that even if you copied it, you have another "technological measure" to go through. So the DMCA gives some arguable protection to decrypting video content that CDs don't have.
    – McKay
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 6:14

There are more grey areas that exist than those stated already. The blacks law dictionary(a legal authority recognised by every known us court) defines "own" in such a way that the mere act of holding something or being in close proximity to itmakes you the owner (this kind of law allows prosecutors to charge everyone in a house with drugs even if some could pass clean tests) If you were charged with illegally possessing copyrighted materials the courts would have to prove that you were not the legal owner. Many people will advise keeping the lightest smallest part of owned content (ie the paper insert under the plastic with the upc)stored in the safest place to ensure protection of such rights if need arises. I am not aware of any person ever being convicted in any court for having only backed up content of products which he has legaly purchased (downloaded or self produced). The act of downloading content you legally own rights to could fall under fair use as well , as with many of these products the tech required to make a digital backup (which you are entitled to) can be beyond your own skill level on multiple levels from running the software involved to the base ability to perform basic solidering and desolidering can be acts you are unable to perform especially with age. not to mention the fact that if you could do it you are undoubtedly devaluing the quality of your own product in the process as it is no longer a factory approved job but a modified and tampered with product. For these reasons it should be fair to say you simply wanted access to what you owned without damaging the storage device you bought it in.

That said I am not a lawyer though I have spent 3years as a paralegal and did research this topic strongly durring such term.Though as has become quite evident to me no quantity of facts of law or reality can guarantee a guilty man be convicted nor the innocent go free. There is a saying "absolute power corrupts absolutely"...the courts are granted absolute immunity to any act they perform from their position, and often spend days on end socially with prosecutors and officers alike...if you think they are unbiased you are a fool...are they going to jeopardise the career of their drinking buddy for the sake of some guy facing a few years(which is likely how long they have a working relationship) and a few bucks (compared to their sallery)you are still mistaken....so better safe than sorry,keep your stuff safe and if you really gotta have it do it yourself....

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    If you're a paralegal, or were, your grammer and spelling should be much better than what you're currently displaying. Suffice it to say, your interpretation is incorrect.
    – Frank
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 21:18
  • was a paralegal grammatical propriety not being my strongest forte doesnt mean my research is invalid...
    – Firobug
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 21:35
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    Your research is invalid because there is absolutely zero precedent for your interpretation. If you were a paralegal, you'd know that. We strive to provide correct information. As it stands, your view of copyright would never hold up in court, and has, in fact, been deemed illegal.
    – Frank
    Commented May 26, 2016 at 22:34

Whoever is saying "The Nintendo page says it is so it is" is full of crap. As far as I know, as long as you own the cartridge you can get the rom.

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    If you own the cartridge you should be on OK grounds to dump the ROM yourself under archival/preservation clauses. But downloading the ROM, even if you still own the cartridge, is likely still a violation of at least the DMCA in the US, if not other countries' laws. I say 'should' and 'likely' because none of this has seen a courtroom (for individuals at least)
    – Robotnik Mod
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 3:49

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