Give Me Liberty: GameBoy Emulator Runs on PalmOS

BOSTON (07/07/2000) - It should be a natural fit; cartridge games running on palmtop computers, however, to date, there haven't been many compelling games for handheld devices. The situation improved this week as software vendor Gambit Studios LLC released Liberty, its emulator for Nintendo of America Inc.'s GameBoy device.

Emulation is the process by which a program can entirely mimic the functions of another computer and thus is able to run the other machine's softwareThe Liberty emulator, available for US$16.95 at Gambit's Web site (http://www.gambitstudios.com/), allows owners of any PalmOS-compatible handheld to play GameBoy games on their palmtops.

It started with a challenge, Gambit President Michael Ethetton said Friday in an e-mail interview.

"People said it couldn't be done, so I decided to try," he said.

After, by his own admission, struggling for a while with the Palm operating system, Ethetton enlisted the support of Aaron Ardiri, a Palm programmer who had written other games for the platform. The two developed Liberty.

However, the completion of work on the emulator may be just the beginning of the matter for Ethetton and Ardiri.

Over 400 games are currently available for GameBoy, and the device is extremely popular, with sales recently passing the 100 million unit mark, according to Nintendo. Not surprisingly, given the success of its products, along with the company's keen protection of its copyrights, Nintendo is no fan of emulation.

Nintendo calls emulation the "greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers" in a statement on its Web site (see http://www.nintendo.com/corps/faq/legal.html). "The only purpose of video game emulators are to play illegal copied games from the Internet," the statement reads.

Kevin Bowen, the founder and site director of ClassicGaming.com, a leading emulation Web site, disagrees with Nintendo's take on the technology. Emulation is completely legal, he said, pointing to widely accepted examples of emulation such as Telnet, a program which emulates a wide variety of computer terminals from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Rather, it is the use of ROM (read only memory) files that is potentially illegal, according to Bowen. In emulation terminology, ROM files are what games are called once they have been removed from their cartridges and stored on PCs.

These files can be posted on Web sites and downloaded or exchanged through e-mail.

While Bowen said that emulation is the only way to play games written for some discontinued systems, he also stressed that he believes it is wrong to distribute ROMs of games and for systems which are still commercially available. This includes Liberty, he said.

However, whether the use of ROMs is entirely illegal is still the subject of much debate in the gaming industry.

Emulation advocates say that copyright laws allow legal owners of games to possess one backup copy of each game they possess -- much like owners of CDs or tapes are allowed to do -- and the owners can also use those copies on emulators. The Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), a computer game industry trade group whose members include Nintendo, Sony Corp. and Sega Corp., however, charge that copyright laws do not allow the creation of ROM files as backups.

It is the belief that these backup files are legal that often leads users into trouble, according to ClassicGaming's Bowen. Because ROMs are not easily extracted from cartridges -- the process requires special hardware -- when users go to Web sites to download copies of games they legally own, they often also download games they do not own because they are easily accessible.

Gambit's Ethetton acknowledges that Liberty may be seen as promoting software piracy. Facilitating piracy is not his intent, he said. Rather, "our goal is to allow the legitimate owners of games to choose where and how they want to play them," Ethetton added. Gambit Studio's Web site also provides links to other sites such as Vintage Gaming.com, which provide GameBoy-compatible games which have been released on the Internet for free by their authors.

Ethetton also said that Gambit has been in contact with both Nintendo and its game makers in an attempt to license official GameBoy games, but "(Nintendo was) not interested in seeing their properties licensed on another computer platform." He added that Gambit is now pursuing licenses for other PC and console games.

Liberty, fittingly unveiled on July 4, is only the latest in a series of major emulation developments occurring in the last few weeks.

A week ago, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI) dropped and then refiled its lawsuit against Connectix Corp., the makers of Virtual Game Station (VGS), an emulator for Sony's popular PlayStation game console, charging copyright violations. The legality of VGS, which requires actual PlayStation discs, rather than ROMs, had been upheld by an earlier ruling. However, the judge in that case only found for Connectix on seven of the nine counts brought against it by Sony. Sony refiled its suit based on the remaining two counts. [See "Sony to Resubmit Patent Claims Against Connectix," June 30.]Also last week, hackers announced that they had cracked the security systems on Sega Enterprises Ltd.'s Dreamcast console, allowing illegally copied games to be played on the system. The Dreamcast had previously been viewed as a system particularly resistant to this sort of tampering.

Who is legally in the right --emulator advocates or game companies -- will probably end up being decided in court. Game makers can look to accumulated U.S. copyright law for support, while a court ruling could provide the foundation for emulators' claims. The ruling, which is becoming more important in the digital age than perhaps anyone had ever imagined it would be, is the 1984 Supreme Court decision in Sony Corp. of America, et al. vs. Universal City Studios Inc., et al. This case held that the then-new VCR did not infringe on copyright because the technology allowed for "significant non-infringing" uses and enabled users to make legal backup copies.

Gambit's Ethetton noted that this Supreme Court decision paved the way for video cassette rentals and sales, which now make up a large percentage of Hollywood film studios' profits. Though Hollywood couldn't see it then, VCRs eventually ended up helping their business.

Gambit "(feels) that Nintendo's best interest is served (whether they realize it or not) by promoting more platforms to play legally licensed games," Ethetton said. Whether Nintendo will end up sharing Ethetton's point of view will, no doubt, be seen shortly.

Nintendo of America, based in Redmond, Washington, is a division of Nintendo Co. Ltd. of Kyoto, Japan, which can be reached via the Internet at http://www.nintendo.com/. Gambit Studios, based in Richmond, Missouri, can be reached at http://www.gambitstudios.com/. ClassicGaming.com can be reached at http://www.classicgaming.com/. Interactive Digital Software Association, based in Washington, D.C., can be reached at http://www.idsa.com/.

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