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Why did Google take so long to remove game console emulators?

by Marty Gabel

In a story that was widely reported this weekend but seemed to disappear from the newswires as quickly as it had arrived, Google removed a number of popular video game emulators from the Android Market.

Hit hardest was the developer Yong Zhang (Yongzh) who saw his Nesoid, SNesoid and N64oid emulators (amongst others) taken out of the Android Market. Just a few weeks ago, the developer’s Sega and Sony emulators were also pulled, though Yongzh removed the Sega one after receiving notice from that particular company.

These emulators have always been a tricky area. The thought has often been that the emulators themselves are not illegal in any way, but acquiring the ROMs (the actual, old code for the game titles themselves) is where the trouble begins. Unless you own these ROMs legally, you’re not supposed to play them, and the apps themselves aren’t allowed to promote the illegal acquisition of said ROMs. But take a look at Nintendo’s own FAQ on their website. This section is the most telling:

There is a good deal of misinformation on the Internet regarding the backup/archival copy exception. It is not a "second copy" rule and is often mistakenly cited for the proposition that if you have one lawful copy of a copyrighted work, you are entitled to have a second copy of the copyrighted work even if that second copy is an infringing copy. The backup/archival copy exception is a very narrow limitation relating to a copy being made by the rightful owner of an authentic game to ensure he or she has one in the event of damage or destruction of the authentic. Therefore, whether you have an authentic game or not, or whether you have possession of a Nintendo ROM for a limited amount of time, i.e. 24 hours, it is illegal to download and play a Nintendo ROM from the Internet.

Why weren’t they removed sooner?

It’s quite surprising that it took Google this long to act, seeing as most of these emulator apps have existed for a long time. They've been widely promoted and featured in Google’s Android Market both online and on devices, and have been one of the fun gaming environments unique to Android which has set it apart from iOS. But they’ve always been illegal right?

This is a somewhat significant move by Google, and so far there’s been no official line from the company. Yet there is plenty of speculation elsewhere. It’s understandable that the Sony-specific ones were removed, what with the recent release of the Android-powered Sony Ericsson Xperia Play and its back catalog of available Sony PSone games. Could Google have some potential deal in the works with Nintendo too? That’s doubtful. It’s just more likely that Google is simply clearing shop as more scrutiny than ever begins to be cast on Android. And as for Google being so ‘free’ and ‘open’ -- well, that seems to be dwindling too, as they begin to take a far stricter view of illegal content.

But once again, how come these emulators were allowed to exist for so long without any action? There’s no denying they’ve been used extensively to promote the OS platform as a great gaming alternative, too.

As ever, this is a tricky area. Google takes a long time to remove games or apps that are intellectual property infringements like fake versions of Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, often waiting until the ‘official’ versions get full releases. And this whole argument gets trickier when developers are purported to have ‘stolen’ concepts from various games. Tiny Bee, Dillo Hills and Flying Turtle Beta on Android look remarkably like the hugely popular Tiny Wings on iOS. These might seem like blatant copies until you read about the Flash game called Wavespark and how its developer was “slightly flattered, and more than a little miffed” about how much Tiny Wings was ‘inspired’ by his game.

Being inspired by concepts and ideas is one thing, blatantly stealing them is another issue completely. Google has started to clamp down, which could be significant to its ‘open’ concept. However, with many other alternative Android markets out there, it’s not so hard to find an alternative source for Yongzh's apps... Unless Google wants to start policing those further too.