Nintendo has successfully patented the emulation in software of handheld gaming devices, and the company has already begun challenging emulator developers to cough up royalties.
Nintendo's patent, number 6,672,963, was filed in November 2000 but only granted on 6 January this year. It is titled 'Software implementation of a handheld video game hardware platform'.
The filing outlines a "software emulator for emulating a handheld video game platform on a low-capability target platform (eg. a seat-back display for airline or train use, a personal digital assistant, a cell phone)". It goes on to outline "a number of features and optimisations to provide high quality graphics and sound that nearly duplicates the game playing experience on the native platform."
The choice of the phrase "low capability" is odd, since PDAs for one, tend to be more powerful than handheld gaming devices. So are PCs, yet the wording of the patent's claims suggests that it too could be covered by the patent. Interestingly, emulators targeting Nintendo's GameCube - ie. of non-handheld devices - are not covered by the patent.
Canadian mobile software developer Crimson Fire would appear to be the first victim. On 5 March, it announced Firestorm, a GameBoy Advance emulator for Tapwave's Palm OS-based Zodiac handheld console. By 12 March, the day the emulator was due to ship, the company had already received a 'cease and desist' letter from Nintendo.
While emulating is inherently legal - reverse engineering is permitted - the situation has always been murky with regard to game systems, since the act of emulation potentially violates intellectual property and anti-piracy systems.
In any case, Nintendo has a history of aggressively targeting emulator developers since the late 1990s. Long-term readers will recall its battle against the N64 emulator UltraHLE. Its argument against UltraHLE centred on the emulator's fostering of the illegal duplication of game ROMs - essentially the same contributory copyright infringement charge Napster was hauled over the coals for. Nintendo makes the same claim against Crimson Fire, but this time has the added weight of patent violation. ®