If I buy a GBA game on e-bay for example but I don't have the console for it, can I proceed to then smash the game with a hammer then download the ROM for it and play it through an emulator, exact same version, exact same region ect...?

Extension: I believe that as soon as anyone buys a GBA/GBC game they own the right to one single copy of said game

  • 5
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a legal question (and is probably dependent on where you live, which you haven't mentioned). Try asking on the law stack exchange. Oct 15, 2015 at 21:23
  • @Studoku This doesn't matter as I stated a site "e-bay" meaning I have not bought said game, meaning I do not own yet, also we have a tag "emulation" for a reason and this depends on whether I can play this game through my emulation software or not legally
    – Sigh
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:25
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    You own a copy of the game, but the act of downloading it, itself, is whats illegal. It is only legal if you copy the rom directly from the cartridge. Even then this is a grey area - in my experience, the terms of use always prohibit such action. The laws of the country you live in can override this.
    – user106385
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:35
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    No. This is common knowledge, for me. If it wasnt, I wouldnt be answering. For more information, direvt the question to Law.SE
    – user106385
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:38
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    I suppose whether it's legal or not depends on where you live, but generally speaking you shouldn't download the ROM. Instead, you should transfer it from the cartridge you own to your PC somehow. Since it's pretty much impossible to do without support from Nintendo (and they likely won't provide that help in the first place), most people probably don't want to know how you got the ROM, as long as you still own the cartridge. Destroying the cartridge is probably a bad move, as you won't be able to prove you still own it (a recipe won't cut it, since you could've easily sold it off).
    – Nolonar
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:42

1 Answer 1


I'm not a lawyer. I'm a guy who reads legal stuff on the internet. This is my personal understanding of how it works.

From Wikipedia:

According to all legal precedents, emulation is legal within the United States. However, unauthorized distribution of copyrighted code remains illegal, according to both country specific copyright and international copyright law under the Berne Convention.[3] Obtaining games through methods not authorized by the developer or publisher is illegal in the United States.

So in the US, emulation is legal but downloading a copyrighted ROM from a random website is illegal.

If you want to emulate with the maximum amount of legality, you'll have to dump your own ROMs directly from your cartridges. This is much easier to do than it used to be; several people have written guides about building hardware that can be used to read cartridges using an Arduino or Raspberry Pi.

Do you need to destroy your cartridge after dumping it? Here's what the text in a Nintendo pamphlet that accompanied a 3DS cartridge says:

Copying of an Nintendo game is illegal and is strictly prohibited by domestic and international intellectual property laws. "Back-up" or "archival" copies are not authorized and are not necessary to protect your software. Violators will be prosecuted.

So here's the thing. In the US, it's legal to make copies of software in two circumstances. One of them is backup. The other one is if making a copy is an essential step to use the software. Dumping the ROM is an essential step to using it with an emulator, so it seems that you should be legally allowed to own both the dump and the cartridge.

Nintendo can say that they don't authorize making backups, but they're not higher than the law. As long as you don't distribute the ROM dump, they can't prosecute you. But if you sell or give away the cartridge, you should delete your ROM dump of it.

You didn't bring up console BIOS files, but they're salient to the discussion. Wikipedia again:

Under United States law, obtaining a dumped copy of the original machine's BIOS is legal under the ruling Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. v. Nintendo of America, Inc., 964 F.2d 965 (9th Cir. 1992) as fair use as long as the user obtained a legally purchased copy of the machine. However, several emulators for platforms such as Game Boy Advance are capable of running without a BIOS file, using high-level emulation to simulate BIOS subroutines at a slight cost in emulation accuracy.

The BIOS is the console's copyrighted firmware. The language here is a bit ambiguous ("obtaining a dumped copy"), so I looked at the court case mentioned. The case was about if it was legal for Game Genie to effectively change the way the BIOS worked, not about distributing the BIOS. So I think you'll either have to dump a BIOS off a Game Boy Advance that you own, or use an emulator that doesn't require a BIOS to run.

  • +1 for mentioning in the US. I live in a country, where only sharing copyrighted software is illegal, but downloading is not. This makes torrents something of a gray area, since most people use those to download and aren't really aware of how it works exactly.
    – Nolonar
    Oct 16, 2015 at 17:34

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