Game history

Nintendo uses copyright to erase video game history

from bad lesson department

Just recently, Tim Geigner wrote about how Nintendo’s success with the relaunched Nintendo NES Classic showed how the company has managed to compete with free, as many NES emulators can play ROMs for free. And yet, the NES Classic comes in neat, easy-to-use packaging. And it’s worth buying, if only because it looks cool – just like the original, but… tiny. I should know: I have one and it’s great. And my wife can’t stop playing Mario Bros. on it, though she continues to complain about other games from her youth that are missing.

But, of course, this is Nintendo we’re talking about, so it’s been busy, busy, busy chasing a bunch of ROM sites and scaring others into shutting down. The EmuParadise site recently shut down with the following as part of its farewell message after 18 years of operation:

It is not worth risking potentially disastrous consequences. I cannot in good conscience risk the future of our team members who have contributed to the site over the years. We run EmuParadise for the love of retro gaming and for you to revisit those good times. Unfortunately, it’s not possible at this time to do this in a way that makes everyone happy and keeps us out of trouble.

Motherboard has a great article pointing out that while Nintendo may be legally correct, the whole situation is ridiculous and offensive. And also counterproductive. Having emulators and game ROMs is what kept many of these games alive (there are even rumors that Nintendo used the ROMs themselves). The Motherboard article has a number of different stories about how tragic it all is, but one area where I think it’s culturally significant is the historical aspect of it all:

“As a teacher, I very often see students spinning their tires trying to solve problems that were already solved in 1985,” said Bennett Foddy, who teaches at New York University’s Game Center and is the developer of games like QWOP and Getting Over It. , told me in an e-mail. “And just like you would if you were teaching painting or music (or math), what you do as a teacher is you send them to the library to study the old classics, to see what that they have done good and bad. This is the only way to progress in the sciences, humanities or creative arts.

The problem is that while NYU has a good collection of classic console hardware and games, it only covers a tiny fraction of the total gaming history. It does not include 8 and 16 bit computer games, which have been distributed on corrupt magnetic media for a long time. That doesn’t include coin-operated games, which are prohibitively expensive for a library even today, and harder to access than ever now that arcades are all but gone. And, of course, most people who get into gaming don’t have access to NYU’s library at all.

“If I was teaching poetry, I could send a student to read almost any poem written since the invention of the printing press, but in games my legal options limit me, I suppose, to less than 1% of important games in history,” Fody said.

And while the article insists that Nintendo removing these sites completely is well within its purview as the copyright holder, I’m not convinced that’s fully the case. They certainly have the right to have the ROMs of games they own the copyright removed, but killing entire sites, even if they have a lot of non-Nintendo games, seems like going too far.

And the problem here isn’t necessarily Nintendo (though it partially is). It really is a copyright issue. Any healthy copyright policy would have allowed most of these games to enter the public domain by now. The games I played in 1984, which then passed decades completely abandoned, should be in the public domain for anyone to make them useful again. That’s mostly happened informally, and as the Motherboard article notes, that’s likely what helped spark this kind of interest in Nintendo’s retro gaming rigs today. today:

Frank Cifaldi, the founder of the Video Game History Foundation, told me he thinks the popularity of these ROM sites was the only reason Nintendo was selling the Nintendo Super NES Classic Edition and older Switch games in the first place. .

“I don’t think the company I work for exists without emulation,” Cifaldi told me in a phone interview. “I think the video game community would have totally evolved if there hadn’t been easy access to old games. I don’t think Nintendo’s Virtual Console [the official portal to buy old Nintendo games on Wii U, Wii, and 3DS] would exist. It proved that the market was there.

But rather than acknowledge this community and support it, Nintendo is going after them and shutting them all down. And that’s really a shame. Basically, thanks to incredibly long copyrights and oppressive copyright holders like Nintendo, we’re seeing copyright being used to eat away at our history. I talked about this when the Internet Archive started rolling out historical software (including many games) that could actually be played in your browser. It’s great that the Internet Archive is able to do this, but at this point the Archive appears to be the only one capable of doing such work without the threat of a destructive copyright lawsuit.

I know some will point out that Nintendo owns that copyright and has every right to do whatever it wants, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bemoan the way it happens. Fans built the community around emulators and ROMs, and Nintendo abandoned them for decades. And now that the company feels it can cash in on the nostalgia that others have helped build and cultivate…it’s destroying those sites in the process. This seems like something that copyright law shouldn’t allow.

Filed Under: contests, copyright, culture, games, nes, classic nes, roms

Companies: nintendo