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Play, but don’t get MAMEd

Much attention has been paid to online music piracy, but gamers know that there are plenty of pirates in the gamer seas as well. But is it still stealing if the games being swapped aren’t even published anymore?

The Game Master has a dirty little secret–I have a fetish for old arcade games. What’s so terrible if, in the wee small hours of the evening, I set aside my eval copy of Enter the Matrix and fire up some of my favorite games, like Mr. Do, Elevator Action, and Congo Bongo?

Mr. Do? you ask. That was in its video arcade heyday in 1982. You get all the latest games for nothing, and you’re wasting your time playing a 21-year-old arcader?

Back in the day, when I was editor-in-chief of GamePower.com, I stumbled onto a tiny program that may or may not be old news to you now, but then it seemed like a minor miracle. It was called the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME).

It has come time to “out” myself as a closet MAME-er.

Developed in 1996 by Nicola Salmoria, MAME acted as a player to “run” bitty pieces of software called ROMs, each capable of duplicating exactly one ancient arcade game. Download MAME and some ROMs (of which hundreds were available), and an arcader would think he died and went to heaven.

Without another thought, I posted MAME and a huge assortment of ROMs on GamePower, to the delight of our readers. But the Interactive Digital Software Association–the trade association that represents the game software industry–wasn’t amused. “Cease and desist,” it said.

Apparently, the IDSA’s lawyers weren’t as enthusiastic about MAME as I was. And, indeed, years later, the association’s anti-piracy efforts still include MAME-busting even though the number of available game ROMs has grown to 2,258.

Most MAME players believe that downloading the emulator or the player isn’t illegal; problems develop, they say, when one locates and plays the ROMs, which are considered the intellectual property of the original copyright owners. That’s why the official MAME site posts only emulators and not ROMs. (Although Google is very helpful in finding the latter.)

But it will come as a surprise to these lovers of nostalgia that the IDSA considers emulators to be verboten too. “If the sole purpose of an emulator is to allow the playing of a console game on a PC … then the creation and use of that emulator constitutes an infringement of the copyrights in the console game,” it says.

The folks who built MAME (and there are currently about 100 volunteer programmers on the project who are constantly upgrading the software) will tell you that even though MAME allows people to enjoy long-lost arcade games, that isn’t the main purpose of the software, which is to document the hardware and software, much as a historian would. “There are already many dead arcade boards whose function has been brought to life in MAME,” they say. “Being able to play the games is just a nice side-effect.”

The debate continues with the MAME people improving the emulators and the IDSA shaking its head, but reportedly not vigorously enforcing what it calls flagrant software piracy.

If you ask me, there comes a time when 25-year-old games that have been locked away, producing little to no income for anyone, should be allowed to see the light of day and be enjoyed by the gaming community. We might even go so far as to describe MAME as a gift to nostalgic gamers. I’d certainly love to hear your opinion on the subject. But not right now; I’m smack in the middle of trying to beat my high score in Mr. Do. And that takes precedence over everything.

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