June 1, 2004

Play Donkey Kong, go to jail?

Author: Joe Barr

LiveCDs -- distributions that allow you to boot a Linux system without installing software on a PC's hard drive -- are popping up faster than Windows security alerts. Riding on the phenomenal success and popularity of Knoppix, LiveCDs for specialized use are available for everything from MythTV to MAME. No, not Auntie Mame, MAME as in Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, which lets you do important things like play Donkey Kong. Believe it or not, there are several LiveCDs focused on the MAME-niche itch. Here's a look at the arcade/system emulator movement and two LiveCDs designed to put you in touch with your inner Donkey Kong: KnoppixMAME and AdvanceCD. I'm happy with game play under both. I only wish I knew more about the legality of using them.The MAME project was born in 1996, when Nicola Salmoria began working on programs to provide hardware emulation for arcade games. In 1997, he merged several board emulators into a single program, which he called MAME. Today, MAME supports nearly 5,000 ROM sets and over 2,700 unique games.

The software for most of these arcade games is not free. If you do not have a legal license for a game you are playing under MAME, you are infringing on someone's copyright. The MAME site provides downloads of two games that have been made free by their owners and which the site has permission to distribute, and another whose owners seem to have disappeared with the fall of East Germany: Gridlee, Poly-Play, and Robby Robo.

The source code for for DOS and Windows versions of MAME is freely available on its Web site under the terms of the MAME license. I find no mention of the MAME license on either the Free Software Foundation or Open Source Initiative license listings.

MESS (Multiple Emulator Super System) is a similar project to MAME, but dedicated to providing emulation for computer systems rather than arcade game hardware. Systems range from Apple to TRS-80 Model 1, from the IBM AT to the VIC-20 -- nearly 200 systems in all. MESS also uses the MAME license and -- like MAME -- prohibits its distribution on the same media with ROMs.

The XMAME/XMESS project ports the original MAME and MESS code to the X platform so that Linux and other flavors of Unix can share the joy, and uses the same license.


The KnoppixMAME LiveCD contains a shrunken version of Knoppix -- the ISO is only about 150MB -- and runs X-MAME with a gxmame front end.

No game ROMS are included with KnoppixMAME, but there are a couple of different ways to get around that. First of all, you can create a /roms subdirectory on your hard drive and place your game ROMS there. KnoppixMAME will look for that directory for games, and gxmame, the GUI front end for MAME, will list them after you select File->Audit All Games from the command menu.

Your second choice is to enter knoppix addroms at the boot prompt to have KnoppixMAME create a new ISO for you which includes the ROMS found in the /roms directory. The advantage to having the ROMS on the CD, of course, is that they are then portable and don't have to reside on the hard drive of whatever system you are running KnoppixMAME on.


AdvanceCD, another LiveCD games distro, is part of a suite of related projects. AdvanceMAME, AdvanceMESS, and AdvanceMENU, AdvanceSCAN, AdvanceCOMP, and AdvanceCAB round out the offerings. The goal of the Advance projects is the same as the original MAME and MESS projects: to preserve obsolete hardware and software platforms.

AdvanceMAME and AdvanceMESS are licensed via the GPL, with this special exception added to every source file:

In addition, as a special exception, Andrea Mazzoleni
gives permission to link the code of this program with
the MAME library (or with modified versions of MAME that use the
same license as MAME), and distribute linked combinations including
the two. You must obey the GNU General Public License in all
respects for all of the code used other than MAME. If you modify
this file, you may extend this exception to your version of the
file, but you are not obligated to do so. If you do not wish to
do so, delete this exception statement from your version.

The AdvanceCD download includes the three games noted earlier, which are truly free. Including these ROMS, the entire ISO is only 20 megs in size. The point is to make as much space as possible on the CD available for your games.

The download version of AdvanceCD is not in ISO format. It's done that way on purpose to make it as easy as possible for you to add your ROMs. When you've put all of your game files into the image/arcade/rom directory created when you decompress the tarball, simply run the included makecd.sh script and it creates the ISO file for you to burn to CD.

If you're too young (or have simply forgotten) how to play arcade games, the MAME FAQ provides the following tip which may help:

Remember, these are not PC re-creations, but the original games. These games always waited for a coin before they would run. With MAME, press 5 to "insert a coin" and get a "credit." To start the game, press 1 (one player) or 2 (two players). Usually, the player 1 controls are set to the arrow keys and buttons 1, 2, 3 are Left Control, Left Alt and Space, respectively. If the game doesn't respond, check the other questions regarding specific games.

Software: Available. Permission: ?

An amazing amount of work has gone into making emulators for all sorts of obsolete game and computing platforms. And I really would like to be able to play Donkey Kong now and then. But I don't know whether it would be legal for me to do so.

There are lots of places on the Internet where I can find a Donkey Kong ROM for download. Some are free, and some are commercial. But in either case, I don't know what right they have to distribute and what right I have to download and use.

One compiler of game ROMS links to a page on the U.S. Copyright Office site which states that computer programs and video games that have become obsolete get an exemption to the DMCA anti-circumvention measures prohibiting access to copyrighted works:

(3) Computer programs and video games distributed in formats that have become obsolete and which require the original media or hardware as a condition of access. A format shall be considered obsolete if the machine or system necessary to render perceptible a work stored in that format is no longer manufactured or is no longer reasonably available in the commercial marketplace.

That's great, as far as it goes. At least the Feds won't be banging on my front door at midnight for DMCA violations. But what about Nintendo's rights under the original copyright to the game, exclusive of DMCA prohibitions? Am I infringing on them if I download and play the ROM for the original arcade version?

I wish I could tell you the answer. What's your take? Is it legal to download and play 20+-year-old arcade game ROMs?


  • Games
Click Here!