Arcade Machine
June 1, 2005 7:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm the student leader of a FIRST robotics team and we're pondering copyright issues involved with the construction of an arcade machine. Much more inside...

As an offseason project/fundraiser we have constructed an arcade machine, complete with coin acceptor and retro joysticks. Any money from the machine will go directly into the team's coffers. We have the go ahead from the administration to put this in the lunch room, with one stipulation: that we can prove no copyright violation is taking place.

The platform is a PIII box running Slackware Linux 10 with old-school 4-way joysticks and arcade buttons (ala PacMan) interfaced such that they trigger keypresses.

So the question is, what joystick-based games (MAME Roms or otherwise) can we run that we can prove are legitimate? How long does it take for copyright to expire on old games? Does the fact we're a non-profit organization make a difference? I'd prefer to use MAME roms simply because it's easier to interface with than many seperate programs.
posted by phrontist to Computers & Internet (17 answers total)
I'm pretty sure you're screwed. I remember something about the only public domain games being from the Soviet Union ages ago. I'm not sure how accurate that is, but you might want to look in that direction.
posted by ODiV at 8:04 AM on June 1, 2005

Well, copyright is life+75 years, so commercial games might be out of the question, especially considering the fact that you want to charge.

These are, to the best of my knowledge, the only free mame roms.

This place sells roms, but not for commercial use.

Also check out this.
posted by Doug at 8:08 AM on June 1, 2005

There are very few you can legally use if you don't already own the games, but there are a couple of ways you can legally aquire some ROMs, according to the MAME FAQ.

Perhaps because it's a fundraiser you could get permission from some copyright holders to let you use the ROMs, but I would guess that would take quite a bit of research and begging.

IANAL but I would think if you went and bought some of those classic arcade pacs then you would legally own the ROMs though I'm not sure what you're doing with them qualifies as fair use.
posted by bondcliff at 8:12 AM on June 1, 2005

Okay here is my thinking:

If we set up a table with a TV and my Atari 2600 and a jar for coins, and people paid to play it, would we be violating any laws? I don't think so. How is this any different?
posted by phrontist at 8:15 AM on June 1, 2005

If it makes a difference, a friend of the team owns a few machines (I know he has an origional Galaga machine), and I own quite a few Atari 2600 games. Is this of any help?
posted by phrontist at 8:18 AM on June 1, 2005

You might be, actually. I'm not sure what the law is for games, but if you go buy a DVD and then charge people to watch it, or buy a CD and play it in your sub shop, it's no longer fair use.

Also, if you set up your Atari you'd be playing games that you purchased, not games you aquired from bittorrent, ROM download sites, or friendly MiFi members who don't mind sharing.

Again, I stress that IANAL.
posted by bondcliff at 8:20 AM on June 1, 2005

Most games I assume are actually collective works, which fall under the copyright rule of 90 years since their creation. Since you probably won't find any ROMs from 1915, public domain is probably out.

I don't know specifically about video games, but I imagine they follow the same broadcast rule as movies: that is, just because you own a legal DVD of a movie doesn't mean you can charge people to come into your basement and watch it on your plasma TV.

How much programming knowledge do you guys have? Every really classic game (Pac-Man, Tetris, Asteroids) has had its concept ripped off about a million times, and those ripoffs seem to be legal.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:21 AM on June 1, 2005

dagnyscott: I'm a fairly good programmer, but I'm trying to avoid re-inventing the wheel. I'll probably just end up writing an interface to handle the launching of GPL'd versions of the games. It's a shame the law has once again won out over elegance.
posted by phrontist at 8:27 AM on June 1, 2005

If the team's friend owns machines, then this would be my solution: Use only games he owns. Write up a bill of sale on a napkin. "Sell" the friend the machine for one dollar. He can then 'donate' the proceeds from the machine to the team, which you can collect. At any point, you can 'buy' back the machine.

My thinking here is that if you own the original machines, you're allowed to own the ROMs (and make money from them, I presume). If your school is worried about copyright, this should allay their fears.

This solution seems to adhere both to the letter and to the intent of the law.
posted by incessant at 8:53 AM on June 1, 2005

Could the friend loan the rights to the roms?
If so, you just need to find enough friends with arcade games who are willing to donate the rights for a limited time.
I'll start the ball rolling with Steel Talons, although I don't know how good the MAME emulation is (strange input devices).
posted by yetanother at 10:05 AM on June 1, 2005

I used to hang out on arcade restoration/ operator messageboards a few years back, and I can offer the following nugget of wisdom gleaned from situations where operaters were restoring particularly rare games they wanted to place on site.

If no functional boardsets could be located, they would emulate the game with mame (As you describe). To legally qualify for the coin operated amusements licenses, they would place a boardset in the cabinet with the computer. Usually it wouldn't be functioning, but it would be the correct boardset for the game.
posted by adamkempa at 10:20 AM on June 1, 2005

If you adhere to copywrong law then there is no legal way to play any arcade game in MAME or any other emulator regardless of you owning the board for that game. Fair use does not pertain to electronic medium such as computer chips. Legally you can burn a ROM off as a backup which can later be used to repair a broken board but you cannot use the 'bare' rom in am emulator. The only legal way to play ROMS is to play those that have been released to the public domain. There are 2 ROMS in PD and one of questionable status. TO further complicate the issue the OP wants to charge money, be it fund raiser or no this is not legal even with ROMs in the public domain
posted by LouieCypher at 1:10 PM on June 1, 2005

Also get in touch with the existing rights-holders, as it may simply be a case of a licence agreement where they get a small split of the proceeds. The desire to tap into Cybercafe profits is making this kind of arrangement far more standard and streamlined than it used to be, so with luck the same arrangements might be applicable to the back-catalogue.

Finding who currently owns the rights may be difficult for some games, but for others (like Atari), I think the rights are still owned by the same company (even though the parent company has changed many times).

Also, I'd suggest avoiding giving any traceable contact details until you're looking at either their standard agreement for these situations (if any), or some other agreement, in order to avoid any irritating crap like a company ignoring the email but forwarding it out of habit to BSA goons to investigate for "compliance".
posted by -harlequin- at 1:28 PM on June 1, 2005

You absolutely can't do this without breaking the U.S. copyright law, in my understanding.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:13 PM on June 1, 2005

setting up an atari and charging folks to play would probably be a violation of the "display" element of copyright if you don't have permission and it's copyrighted to begin with. This is true for media, not positive in the context of games tho.
posted by lorrer at 5:17 PM on June 1, 2005

"setting up an atari and charging folks to play would probably be a violation"
Cybercafes do it all day every day. Many do it in violation of the terms of the EULA (though EULAs themselves are of questionable legality, and certainly don't trump local consumer rights laws), but for many, if not most games, there are provisions for the cafe to pay a fee to the publisher that makes everything legitimate. Rules become guidelines when money enters the equation :)
posted by -harlequin- at 9:52 PM on June 1, 2005

Perhaps not well known, but Robby Roto has been released to public domain by Jay Fenton, it's creator. Robby Roto is playable via MAME/MacMAME.

Looks like Gridlee and Poly Play are also public domain.

You can download all three ROMs from the bottom of this page at

Again, not Pac-Man or Asteroids, but free.

Not sure if "public domain" gives you the rights to charge people to play. I'll leave that answer to others...
posted by blueberry at 12:39 AM on June 2, 2005

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