The definitive video game emulation case. In the late 1990's, Connectix created the Virtual Game Station, a commercial emulator designed to replicate the Sony Playstation on a PC. In doing so, they necessarily had to copy elements of the Sony BIOS (built-in operating system (the software that runs the Playstation)), but they claimed fair use. The court agreed, noting that law stated that disassembly could be considered fair use when it is the "only way to gain access to the ideas and functional elements embodied in a copyrighted computer program." Since Sony had provided little information about their BIOS to the public, Connectix could only gain access to it by taking it apart. The court also found VGS to be "moderately transformative"; it transfers the Playstation to a new platform, and thereby expresses the product in a different fashion. And since the VGS is transformative, it is not really a replacement for the Playstation. The court also ruled on the claim that Connectix tarnished Sony's Playstation name. Although the VGS does not play games as well as an actual Playstation, the court did not find that this would result in the VGS hurting Playstation's good name
This case follows sound logic, and clearly sets out the argument that emulation itself is perfectly legitimate. It clearly outlines exactly how Connectix copied Sony's BIOS, and explains why that path resulted in VGS being fair use (and in doing so, more or less created guidelines as to how to ensure the legality of an emulator). More importantly, this case made it clear to video game companies that contesting emulation itself would not succeed; if video game companies were intent on stopping piracy, they would have to go after the actual copies of the games, not the emulators. Since ROM files are much more prevalent than emulators, this decision in essence made it much more difficult to stop video game piracy, and forced companies to allow the creation of dozens of free emulators.
In the late 1990s, Connectix sold a product called the Virtual Game Station, an emulator program that could play Sony Playstation games, intended for play on the Playstation game console, on Apple Macintosh computers. Bleem, a vendor of Playstation emulator software for Windows computers, was also sued. Initially, Sony won a permanent injunction against the Connectix Virtual Game Station in 1999, but the decision was successfully appealed in 2000. Connectix and Bleem both won rulings that their reverse engineering of the Sony products constituted fair and non-infringing uses. However, their products were eventually taken off the market because they could not bear the high costs of litigation against Sony.
Emulators typically contained additional features not found on the real console and generally had completely different interfaces. To create the emulator, Connectix programmers had to first purchase a Sony Playstation and reverse engineer the source code. The court ruled that this and other intermediate copies made by Connectix were all legitimate fair uses. Regardless of Connectix and Bleem’s financial state, the landmark decision shocked the gaming industry. Emulators existed prior to the trial, but the question of their legality was always unknown.
Since personal computers are much more popular than game consoles due to their ability to run many types of applications, gamers have the option of purchasing emulators and emulator games instead of a separate game console. For Sony, one of their primary arguments was that this software would negatively impact the market for their consoles. Vendors of the system claimed that emulators would take away from their console and game revenue. However, emulations of games were never the same in quality and in experience as the real games. In the end, the Sony v. Connectix trial set a huge precedent for future emulator and associated game software. As long as the software did not infringe on original intellectual property rights, then emulators were deemed lawful. A system vendor cannot prohibit the distribution of non-infringing third-party emulators such as the Virtual Game Station. The result of this case has prompted questioning of the amount of control that companies should have over their intellectual property.