Is RetroPie Legal? Here’s What You Need to Know!

Retro gaming is surging in popularity. Blogs, YouTube channels, and social media pages dedicated to the topic are everywhere. RetroPie is a software option available for the Raspberry Pi that offers gamers a chance to play thousands of retro games on modern displays. But is RetroPie legal? Let’s take a look.

RetroPie is a perfectly legal software platform on which to play retro video games. This is because RetroPie is merely a collection of emulators, and emulators are completely legal. However, malicious use of RetroPie can run afoul of copyright law.

There’s some legal grey area surrounding ROMs (the individual game files) and BIOS files. Read on to find out more about the legality of RetroPie.

Is RetroPie Legal?
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

What is RetroPie?

As I wrote earlier, RetroPie is a collection of emulators designed to run on Raspberry Pi single board computers. Emulators are software programs that run on modern devices; their purpose is to serve as a replacement for video game consoles. For example: the default Super NES emulator in RetroPie is called lr-snes9x; it plays SNES game files.

RetroPie is simply a collection of emulators, and emulators themselves are completely legal. The big advantage of RetroPie is that there are many emulators that replicate that gameplay experience of many vintage consoles for use on a modern display. It’s easy to switch between systems and play a variety of games.

Are RetroPie emulators legal?

Yes, RetroPie emulators are legal. When you download and install RetroPie from RetroPie’s website, what you’re doing is completely legal.

What are ROMs?

ROM stands for Read Only Memory and the term refers to the individual game file for a specific game. For example: if you want to play Sonic The Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis, the Sonic The Hedgehog game file is referred to as a ROM.

Are ROMs legal?

It depends, and this is where the legal waters start to get a little grey. The central issue with the legality of ROMs and emulation is that of intellectual property law. Essentially, for the same reason it’s illegal to pirate a DVD and post it online for free, it’s illegal to own, download, disseminate, or use pirated ROMs.

Here’s what’s definitely legal

On one end of the spectrum, you have perfectly legal ROMs. These are ROMs that companies distribute on their websites in a perfectly legal way. A good example of this is the Sega Mega Drive and Genesis Classics collection available on Steam. This collection is available for download for a small fee, and the copyright owners are compensated for the use of their intellectual property.

Here’s What’s Definitely illegal

The other end of the ROM spectrum contains illegal ROMs. Simply downloading a complete collection of pirated ROMs off of the internet is illegal for the same reason downloading pirated versions of movies is illegal. As I mentioned earlier, video games are protected by intellectual property law. Pirating games is illegal.

Further, hosting a website full of illegal ROMs is definitely a legal no-no. Doing something like that is going to grab the attention of deep-pocketed corporations with an incentive to go after you.

Roms in legal grey area

In the middle of these two ends of the legality spectrum is a somewhat grey area. For the record: I’m not a lawyer, I don’t play one on TV, and nothing in this article is legal advice.

The nuances and specifics of the legalities of ROMs and backups is beyond the scope of this article. You’ll need to seek competent legal counsel to determine the legalities of your situation.

At the center of the legal grey area is the legal concept of fair use. The argument is that ripping ROM files from media you already own constitutes fair use. Advocates say that they’re making a back-up of a game they own.

Another grey area is that of downloading game files for games you own. This is another fair use issue, and it hasn’t really been tested well in the court system.

To the best of my knowledge no end user of ROM files has ever been prosecuted for playing retro video games. However, website owners of sites that sell and/or disseminate large quantities of ROM files have been the legal target of video game companies who don’t take kindly to large-scale piracy of their intellectual property.

Other Legal Issues with RetroPie

The other main issue about RetroPie and intellectual property law involves BIOS files. BIOS stands for Basic Input/Output System, and BIOS files are required for some emulators to work properly.

Much like ROMs, BIOS files are protected by intellectual property law. Essentially, they enable emulators to run properly, especially on start-up. Certain emulators for certain systems won’t start-up at all without the correct BIOS file.

Unfortunately, you’ll need to obtain BIOS files for some emulators on your own, and my suggestion is that you do so legally. BIOS files aren’t included in RetroPie due to the aforementioned intellectual property law issues.

Which RetroPie Emulators Require a BIOS file?

RetroPie lists the systems whose emulators require a BIOS file on their website. For you convenience, here’s a quick list:

  • Amiga
  • Atari 800
  • Atari 7800
  • CoCo
  • Dragon 32
  • Nintendo Famicom Disk System
  • Nintendo GameBoy Advance
  • Intellivision
  • Macintosh
  • PC Engine / TurboGrafx-CD
  • Sony Playstation
  • NeoGeo
  • Sega CD
  • Sega Dreamcast
  • Sega Saturn
  • Videopac or Odyssey2

What Happens if I Don’t Have a BIOS File?

If you don’t have a BIOS file for an emulator that requires it, the emulator won’t load. As you navigate RetroPie’s graphical user interface, you’ll be able to see the system and the games. However, when you select a game, the screen will go black for a few seconds and then return to the game select screen. If you don’t know what’s wrong, it can be a frustrating experience. You’ll need to add a BIOS file for the game to load properly.

Final Thoughts

There really aren’t any other legal issues with RetroPie. The RetroPie system in and of itself is perfectly legal. This is because emulators are perfectly legal, and RetroPie is essentially a collection of emulators.

The legal boundaries of RetroPie come into play with ROMs and BIOS files. It’s important to obtain your BIOS files and ROMs legally from reputable sources.

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