What Are ROMs, Emulators & Are They Illegal? (Mostly No)

What are ROMs, emulators & how do they work?

What are ROMs?

ROM stands for Read-Only Memory, which, in the context of video games, refers to a computer file or cartridge containing a copy of a game’s data.

They contain all the information and data necessary for a game to run. This includes everything from the game’s graphics and sound effects to its underlying code and software mechanics.

ROMs function as digital versions of the game data that was originally stored on cartridges or discs.

When a ROM is run on an appropriate emulator, it recreates the game experience just as it would have been on the original hardware. The emulator interprets the data contained within the ROM file, replicating the behavior of the original hardware, allowing the game to be played.

This process is comparable to reading a book written in a different language. In this case, the ROM is the writing within the book, and the original game system (like the NES, Atari, or Game Boy) is the language it’s written in.

An emulator then functions as a translator, making it possible for us to understand and interact with the content of the book, even if we don’t speak the language it’s written in.

ROMs allow us to play our favorite games from the past on modern systems, effectively immortalizing the legacy of retro gaming.

What are emulators?

ROMs and emulators are not the same, although they often work in tandem. ROMs are the game files themselves, while emulators are the software that reads these files and translates them into a playable game on a different platform. In essence, an emulator replicates the functionality of the original gaming system, and a ROM is the game that is played on it.

A screenshot from Dolphin Emulator. The games in the list are the ROMs, while the software that plays them is the emulator

Where to download ROMs

We strongly discourage piracy, but there are certain games whose intellectual property is neglected and they are nowadays mostly classified as abandonware.

These types of games can found on sites such as:

  1. Classic Reload

Classic Reload is a repository of old-school games that can be played directly in the browser. While you can search for old games on Google, this site has a curated and organized collection that simplifies discovery and provides the unique capability to play these games online.

Visit Classic Reload

  • OldGamesDownload

Old Games Download is a site dedicated to preserving and providing access to vintage and discontinued games. These games, which are not readily available or playable on modern systems, can be downloaded and enjoyed through emulators.

Visit OldGamesDownload

  • Internet Archive

Internet Archive, or archive.org, contains a wealth of information such as books, movies, music and even video games.

These video games can be found on archive.org’s classic PC games section.

Visit Archive.org Classic PC games

Are ROMs and emulators illegal?

You may be wondering if it’s legal to download and play ROMs. On the surface, it seems like innocent fun, right?

But in reality, in many situations (but not all), you’re likely infringing upon the law. The laws about using emulators are complex, which can make it tricky to know what’s allowed and what’s not.

Nowadays, ROMs and emulators are readily available but the laws around them are unclear and big game companies prefer to keep them hazy.

Because of this it’s understandable if you don’t know what are your rights as a consumer. But don’t worry, this article will aim to simplify this topic for you. We’ll explore the legal aspects of ROMs, hacks, and even newly made cartridges that you see on various online shopping sites.

It’s important to note that we at Datasourse are not legal professionals. However, our work often involves dealing with copyright laws, and we’ve conducted thorough research for this article. Still, we may make mistakes, so it’s always wise to do your own research before making any decisions.

Copyright laws & how they apply to ROMs, emulators & video games

To understand your rights better, let’s initially look at the evolution of US copyright law and its current state.

In the 1970s the US Congress understood that existing copyright laws of the time didn’t fully cover computer-related works. As a result, in 1980 they amended the US copyright law with the Computer Software Copyright Act to properly regulate the IP of these works.

According to the Computer Software Copyright Act, when you legally purchase software, including games, you, the consumer, are granted several rights under Section 117 of US Copyright law.

The right to create a backup copy of purchased software

One of your rights as a consumer includes the right to make a backup copy of software you’ve legally bought. There’s a lot of discussion about this, but as we understand it, this rule is meant to let you make a backup in case the original is damaged.

This is an extremely important legal right that is given to you.

This right was created during the 1970s when storage media wasn’t reliable and was prone to break down. As such, the right to create a backup copy was deemed necessary to protect consumers from machine failure.

We believe that you should use your original software you bought as your primary version.

However, copyright law doesn’t clearly allow or forbid you to use your backup along with the original.

In summary, the law gives you permission to create a backup copy of software you’ve purchased, to save it on your hard drive, and load it into your computer’s RAM.

However, you can only make copies of a software program as long as it’s “essential” for using the software. Here, “essential” is the key word.

Is emulation legal?

Interestingly, there’s no specification that the software must be run on the particular piece of hardware it was made for.

For example, the copyright law doesn’t explicitly say you must run a NES game on an actual NES device.

Since this isn’t explicitly forbidden, it’s logical to assume that it’s legal to run a NES game on a Windows computer for example.

This is the loophole in copyright law that makes emulation legal.

That being said, some terms of service and user agreements try to prohibit this, but the legality of user agreements and ToS’s is debatable, as courts are divided on their actual legality.

Having understood the protections we have, let’s examine how this applies to the ROMs and hacks readily available on the internet.

Can we legally download ROMs from Google if we already own the cartridge?

Sadly, it’s not legal to download ROMs for games you already own since you didn’t personally make the backup copy (or ROM) of the game you’ve purchased. However, it’s almost impossible for a company or prosecutor to tell if the copy or ROM came from your cartridge or was downloaded from the internet.

Nevertheless, we recommend following the law as closely as you can. You should create your own copies from your cartridges. This may not be straightforward for the average retro game player.

Even though they’re not common, there are more tools available now for copying cartridges than ever before.

Another way to legally obtain ROMs, which doesn’t require expensive equipment, is to extract the ROM files from a digital download you’ve legally purchased.

Online platforms like Steam sell classic games by Sega and others, which are actually running on emulators, and these emulators use ROMs. Usually, you can find them in the game folder without much trouble.

Are ROM hacks legal?

In our opinion, modifying ROMs, also known as ROM hacking, is completely legal as long as you don’t violate the copyright of the company whose game you’re modifying.

Modifying console games is basically the same as modding PC games. Generally, companies should view this not as a violation, but rather as enthusiastic fans expressing themselves.

If you create your own copy or ROMs, modify it yourself, and don’t sell or share copyrighted ROMs, you’re not infringing on any laws.

This might violate the terms of service or a licensing agreement, but the legality of such terms is debatable.

Furthermore, terms of service and licensing agreements are essentially civil contracts between you and the video game publisher, not laws that can lead to prosecution.

Can developers create new games for older consoles without permission?

Can people developers legally create and release games without explicit permission or license from Nintendo, Sega or PlayStation?

Absolutely, these are perfectly legal.

Back in 1992, Sega sued Accolade, a company that produced several games for the Genesis that Sega didn’t allow.

Eventually Accolade won, granting them the right to produce and sell new games on the Genesis without permission from Sega.

Is it legal to resell ROMs?

The short answer is that reselling ROMs, like those well-known 101-game compilations, is entirely illegal. These types of cartridges are essentially profiting from software piracy. Just because these games are old doesn’t mean they’re free to be sold or given away.

The games in these compilations are protected by copyright, and companies like Nintendo strongly dislike others profiting from their intellectual property. Unless the sellers have agreements with every company whose games are in these compilifications, it’s straightforward theft. I would strongly suggest avoiding involvement in such illegal activities.

While many people enjoy buying and selling used games, these particular games are totally illegal to resell. Even if you bought the cartridge, you have no right to resell these games. The same goes for modified ROMs on cartridges.

These modified versions are being distributed improperly, and the sellers are breaking the law. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 set tough penalties for software piracy, stating that violators can face up to five years in prison and fines up to $250,000. However, this is an extreme case and is unlikely to occur.


So now you have a bit of insight into what to look out for concerning software piracy with ROMs and hacks.

It’s certainly something to keep in mind, but it’s rare for companies to target you for downloading their games nowadays.

The chances of that happening are very slim. Never say never, but it’s usually not worth it for them to hunt down and prosecute an individual gamer who just wants to play a round of Donkey Kong Country on their laptop.

Paul Bonea
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