Code just wants to be free

Another exhibit in the ‘why DRM, closed source, and copyright are bad.’ Check out this extensive list of translation hacks for foreign language videogames that were never released in the US – http://romhacking.deadbeat-inc.com/ (click on the translations link on the left). I know most folks won’t think of it in these terms, but this is folks working on their own time to make art from other cultures accessible to a broader audience, in the same way that other folks are fan-subbing movies, but with a much greater degree of technical difficulty. They’re figuring out how to bypass the copy protections and encryption built into the cartridges these games were published on, then they’re puzzling out the data structures that are used to store the game content so that they can then write back to those data structures with the translated text. It’s really amazing, not only in terms of this actually being done, but in terms of the scale of these efforts – literally dozens and dozens of games are being brought into other languages (chiefly english) this way.

M.A.M.E. is often held up as a poster child for efforts of this nature – if not for the efforts of these developers the vast majority of the games emulated by mame would have functionally (if not actually) have disappeared by now, and certainly they would all have vastly reduced audiences limiting folks’ ability to play them. These translation efforts are equally valuable in this regard, both in terms of broadening the exposure of a whole class of games and in terms of preserving them for future use.

Something needs to give in the current climate of copyright restrictions – all of these efforts would be technically illegal under the terms of the DMCA because of the restrictions on cracking encryption and other copy protection mechanisms built into the cartridges. Yet generally speaking these efforts harm no one and help everyone. I concede the copyright holders’ need to protect their assets, and they do occasionally produce new games based on these older titles, but these are the exception, not the norm, and is a drop in the bucket compared to the volume of games being released to new audiences due to these efforts.

Bottom line to me is as the subject says – code just wants to be free. It’s much better for all involved. I’m concerned about the next generation of consoles and these efforts, because things like M.A.M.E. have woken the publishers up to demand for this older game content, and xbox live on the 360 has proven that it at least seems financially workable, meaning the copyright holders are likely to start getting more restrictive and assertive when it comes to their older, languishing intellectual property. It bodes ill for a variety of activities like these translation and emulation efforts, yet again I assert that it’s in almost everyone’s interests to see that these kinds of projects are encouraged, not discouraged.

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