How to Legally Backup Your Optical Media Video Games


Eh. You're probably right...

In a previous article, I discussed the importance of emulators and their role in preserving the rich history of video games. Though the hearty cartridges of the previous era tend to withstand the test of time much better, CDs are at a much higher risk of becoming unusable by their original consoles. Luckily for you, dear reader, I am here to provide you with useful options to ensure that you'll be able to continue your selfless struggle in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Shenmue unabated. You can thank me later.

For now, let's start with...

Backing Up Your Optical Media

Whether you choose to play your freshly backed-up games on the original hardware or an emulator, you'll first need to create a digital backup of the disc itself. This part of the process is pretty straightforward, and only requires the original disc, a PC, and a CD burner.

For best results, I recommend the following programs to rip the required files:

Both of these programs tout a trial period, but after using both of these programs over the course of four years, I haven't encountered a paywall or loss of existing features.

There are other trial-based programs available such as Alcohol and Nero, but both of the previously mentioned programs generate the best results, especially where subchannel information and copy protection are a concern.

The directions for running each of the above listed programs are on their respective websites, but in the end, you should wind up with, at minimum, both a BIN and CUE file. Just remember where you put them (preferably in its own folder). Now, onto Step Two...

Testing Your Conversion

For this part of the process, we need to track down some reliable emulators to run the resulting BIN file. A few recommended emulators to get you started include:

Simply setup your emulator, run the BIN file, and get your game on. Problems from ripped files are rare and can mostly be attributed to the emulator. If you encounter any graphical and/or audio glitches in-game, try another emulator first before reattempting a rip.

I should mention that it is possible to burn these files to disc for use in a modded console (the Sega Dreamcast natively runs burned games), but after countless hours of research, I haven't found any one method that works with my current rig. The basic gist of all of the above links is to obtain some blank, silver bottom CD-Rs, use ImgBurn or MagicISO, and select the lowest read speed possible before hitting Burn (though none I've come across have stated to go any lower than x4).

Bottom line: try multiple configurations and test the discs through the emulator or console to ensure a proper burn. If you find one that works for you, share in the comments below, along with your current computer specifications and game.

The Legalities Behind Emulators and ROMs (ISOs)

Bear in mind that the above emulators are freeware and completely legal under all current precedents. Many of the emulators listed above require a BIOS file to run, whose legality is typically called into question. Under the precedent set in Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. vs Nintendo of America, Inc., the use of these BIOS files falls under fair use as long as you own a legally purchased copy of the console in question.

For example, it is considered illegal if you do not own a Sony Playstation console and download a copy of the proprietary BIOS file, written by Sony, that ePSXe requires to run. However, with both the original game disc and the console, it can be construed as fair use. Some high-level emulators, or HLEs, use their own version of the proprietary BIOS file that mimics the function of the original, but is completely written by its developers. Therefore, the legality of using a particular BIOS file considers: 1) whether you own the hardware in question, and 2) who authored the required BIOS file.

The same can be said about video games. Creating a backup copy of your optical media is not considered illegal, but widely distributing it can be. For example, on Nintendo's Legal Page, they state that "...whether you have an authentic game or not, or whether you have possession of a Nintendo ROM for a limited time, i.e. 24 hours, it is illegal to download and play a Nintendo ROM from the Internet.". In short, any sites hosting copyrighted ROMs, ISOs, and BIOS files run the risk of legal action, but creating a copy of an authentic and legally obtained game for personal use falls on the legal side of the spectrum.

One argument for emulation is that even though emulation may encourage piracy, many of the ROMs available online are for games that are no longer commercially available from the owners of the IP. For example, Nintendo is no longer profiting from the sale of retail copies of Excitebike and currently has no plans to redistribute it outside of a digital format. Therefore, the ROM should fall under fair use as long as it's for personal consumption and your existing copy is broken beyond repair.

However, in response to high demand, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo recently began rolling out emulators on their own respective platforms that play outdated titles. Through emulation, Sony's Playstation Now allows users to play PS3 titles over the cloud (with PS1 and PS2 titles soon to follow), Microsoft's XBox One allows for backwards compatibility with a growing number of XBox 360 titles, and Nintendo's Wii U Virtual Console has made games from its past consoles and handhelds available for purchase, including Excitebike.

In short, the use of an emulator has been ruled legal by precedent, HLE BIOS files are legal as long as they don't copy the original BIOS file verbatim, and ROMs are legal as long as you own an original copy of the game and do not download it from the Internet.

Notable cases that take on the issue of intellectual property for your own research include Sega vs Accolade, Sony Computer Entertainment vs Connectix Corporation, and Sony Computer Entertainment vs Bleem, LLC, and information regarding country-specific and international copyright law regarding proprietary code are covered by the Berne Convention.

Wrapping Up

Regardless of what your stance is on emulation, it cannot be denied that it has had a major impact on the way we play games. Before the advent of emulators, many console manufacturers didn't concern themselves with backwards compatibility when designing their new consoles. The later implementation of backwards compatible adapters during the fourth generation of video game consoles, such as Sega's Power Base Converter in 1989 and Nintendo's Super Gameboy in 1994, were in response to a demand to play outdated games on new hardware, and emulation is no exception.

Were it not for the work of these developers, it is entirely possible that the AAA developers who create our favorite consoles would not have integrated them into their online service, thus increasing their profitability while giving gamers the chance to play their favorite titles on their newer consoles. In short, emulation has not seemed to hurt the video game industry as it had feared, but rather give them a chance to reintroduce some of their most pioneering works to a new generation. In the words of industry vet Frank Cifaldi, "It's Just Emulation!".