EDIT: An earlier version of this article suggested that Retroarch did not bundle decryption keys. The Retroarch frontend actually incorporates the PPSSPP core, so it does have a decryption key for that emulator. That sentence was completely removed to avoid confusion. You can read the full article below.
Last week news hit with headlines and videos about Valve removing Dolphin from Steam, after Valve talked to Nintendo. Today we have more clarity on the situation, and even further explanation on the issues that concern Dolphin, as well as all of the most popular video game emulators people play with today.
Now, Valve very recently confirmed that they proactively reached out to Nintendo of their own volition about Dolphin, a video game emulator that can run GameCube and Wii games on Windows, Android, and iOS devices.
Valve explained that they mainly didn’t want to ship a program like Dolphin if there were potential legal disputes with it, because it would be disruptive to their users.
Now, as we explained in our original article, Nintendo did not send Valve a DMCA, not even in response to Valve’s inquiry. An outgoing Dolphin team member named Pierre Bourdon explained that Nintendo essentially sent Valve a cease and desist from distributing Dolphin on their platform.
We also mentioned the Dolphin emulator’s use of the Wii’s decryption AES-128 Common Key. This was the apparent legal issue Nintendo raised when it comes to the emulator.
Today Pierre has a new post on Reddit explaining the issue of decryption keys on emulators and the legalities of its use. We’ll summarize the key points for your convenience here.
First things first, decryption keys are literally just a series of numbers. As Pierre had pointed out, emulators PPSSPP, RPCS3, Xenia, Cemu, Citra, Desmume, Ryujinx, Vita3K, melonDS, and no$gba all use decryption keys.
Now, Pierre clarifies that he isn’t a lawyer, but he was both a developer in Dolphin in the past, and was a part of Stichting Dolphin Emulator, the nonprofit that supported development of the emulator. He has also spoken to lawyers and developers about this issue.
He outlines his opinions on the individual legal issues like so:
- The laws are unclear if decryption keys can be copyrighted.
- The laws are also unclear if using or bundling decryption keys break DMCA anti circumvention rules. The law involving DMCA in particular is 17 USC 1201, which hasn’t seen enough court cases to determine how it would be applied.
- What 17 USC 1201 does state is that circumventing copy protection measures would be violating the DMCA.
- There is one final question, if emulators themselves are made to circumvent technological measures like copy protection in general. This, has also not been decided legally, because of a lack of precedent.
We’re ending this off with Pierre’s final words, about what you need to know about the legal grey area, which applies to game emulation here, but can also be about more than that:
“Being in the grey area does not mean you’re morally right or wrong. It’s just a consequence of the vagueness of laws written in the 90s that have very much not kept up with technology.
A third of the relevant law for emulation and circumvention (17 USC 1201) is written to cover what kind of VHS copying is allowed or disallowed. “No person shall apply the automatic gain control copy control technology or colorstripe copy control “technology to prevent or limit consumer copying except such copying”. Maybe if they went into that much details on emulation or modern DRM technology that uses encryption, we could have clear answers. But we don’t, and anyone who claims they have those answers are most likely lying to you.”