There was a time when game ROMs could be found on the internet with relative ease. Then Nintendo vs ROMUniverse happened and everything changed. ROMUniverse hosted a veritable treasure of gaming ROMs, aimed at retro gamers, which included a huge selection of Nintendo titles.
This ended in 2019 when Nintendo filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles resident Matthew Storman who owned and operated ROMUniverse. By charging paid premium subscriptions and running ads, the plaintiff was able to profit from the upload and distribution of pirated Nintendo games.
While the initial response of ROMUniverse was to fight back and request a dismissal of the case from the Californian court, this was unsuccessful. Furthermore, a 2020 agreement with Nintendo that ROMUniverse would close down didn’t end the case. More recently, Nintendo requested a summary judgement claiming $15 million in damages.
Video Game Piracy: FACT
Declaring Nintendo vs ROMUniverse as a “straightforward video game piracy case… For over a decade, defendant Matthew Storman owned and operated the website RomUniverse.com. He populated the website with pirated copies of thousands of different Nintendo games and distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of those pirated games.”
Storman still disagreed, arguing that he never uploaded any games himself.
This week, US District Court Judge Consuelo Marshall appeared to side largely with Nintendo, ruling on Storman’s liability for direct, contributory, and vicarious copyright infringement and trademark infringement. Meanwhile, the denials concerning uploading were unconvincing: “Defendant filed a declaration in opposition to the Motion wherein he declares that he ‘denies and disputes that he uploaded any files to said website and at no time did he verify the content of said ROM file’, which is directly contradictory to his sworn deposition testimony wherein he testified that he uploaded the ROM files onto his website,” noted Judge Marshall.
While Nintendo demanded damages exceeding $15 million, the Californian court disagrees, awarding $35,000 (Nintendo claimed $90,000) damages for each copyrighted work. With 49 titles, this is $1.7 million, along with $400,000 for the 29 trademark damages (Nintendo demanded $400,000 each).
Interestingly, the court opted against issuing permanent injunciton against Storman, mainly due to ROMUniverse having already shut down. The total charge of damages to the self-represented plaintiff was $2,115,000.
What Does This Ruling Mean?
Retro gaming is going mainstream – that is a fact. Nintendo clearly sees profit in its back catalogue in much the same way movie companies and TV networks do. This ruling sends several messages: one is a clear message that Nintendo is in charge of its game library. Another is that attempts to monopolise the illegal ROM marketplace will be met with a show of legal force from the copyright and license holders.
In terms of mainstreaming retro gaming, ROMUniverse and its peers have had their day. The battle is won. Rather than wandering the jungle in khaki greasepaint refusing to accept defeat, they should go quietly into the night.
They won’t, of course. That’s not how people behave on the internet. After all, Nintendo game ROMs remain widely available online. ROMUniverse is dead, but there will always be a ROMUniverse.
Gaming since 1984, retro gaming since 2004. Contributes to Linux Format magazine and MakeUseOf.com.