Emulation Lawsuits: Past and Present

As of early 1999, the legal status of software emulation remains a massive gray area. There are no explicit written laws governing the legality of emulators, nor are there any precedents in the case law from which conclusions about the status of emulators may be drawn. However, that's not to say that debate about emulators has yet to take place in the legal arena. There have been a handful of emulator lawsuits; described below are three emulator-related legal incidents, one of which is highly significant in that it may finally be the case that sets the precedent for all such cases to follow.

Atari v. Coleco

In 1983, the Coleco computer company released the Gemini system, which could play games written for the Atari 2600 system. The Gemini was not so much an emulator as a "clone." Coleco expected a lawsuit from Atari but was confident it could win; sure enough, Atari sued and Coleco won. However, there is sufficiently little similarity between the Gemini and modern software emulators to preclude this case from serving as a precedent.

Nintendo v. Epsilon et al.

This was not a lawsuit per se: Nintendo never sued Epsilon and RealityMan, the authors of the UltraHLE Nintendo 64 emulator (it is common for figures in the emulation community to go by pseudonyms), but were considering doing so for about a month earlier this year. The company decided not to pursue legal action in early March, but the threat of a Nintendo lawsuit may have been one factor in the developers' decision to remove UltraHLE from the Internet only hours after it was initially posted online. Had Nintendo decided to sue, the case would undoubtedly have been a precedent setting one for the legality of software emulation.

Sony v. Connectix

A pending case. In late January 1999, Sony filed a lawsuit against Connectix alleging that the VGS constituted an infringement of Sony's intellectual property rights (possibly because the VGS may contain a verbatim copy of the PlayStation BIOS, as reported in Wired.com). As of March of this year, Sony appears to be on the losing side of the case: it has filed two injunctions against Connectix in the past two months, the first to prevent Connectix from distributing the VGS and the second to prevent it from allegedly using the PlayStation BIOS in the emulator, and has lost both injunctions. However, the case has yet to go to court, so the final verdict remains very much in the air. All that is known is that this case may well settle the question of whether emulators are legal and may set the precedent for all such cases to follow.

NEXT: The Emulators

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Ted LeVan   |   Huat Chye Lim   |   Marissa Mayer   |   Ann Rose Van

Computer Science 201 Final Project
Stanford University, March 1999