Last week, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) posted a recent patent update from Nintendo. Patent application 20140349751
, filed in June 2014, looks to improve upon Nintendo patent 8157654
, adding processor-level adaptation for emulators
of handheld consoles like the Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advanced. While some fans may take it as a sign that Nintendo is official moving into the smartphone and tablet space, it's more likely done for legal purposes.
The type of patent application is nothing new for Nintendo, since it looks to update the "hand-held video game platform emulation" patent from October 2003. Patent 8157654 was updated by patent 8795090
, in a filing from 2012 that was granted in August of this year. There are at least two other applications filed to update aspects of the emulation patent filed in 2004 and 2013. There are also a myriad of other Nintendo patents involved, including the "software implementation of a handheld video game hardware platform" patent 6672963
from November 2000, which covers similar ground.
Patent application 20140349751 looks to update only one area of the patent, focusing on the adaptation of an emulator on other processing platforms. Where other patents covered specific acts emulation, the divisional application takes a broad approach at how machines can run multiple binary applications. The addition covers the idea of using a processor to launch an emulator, determine the identity of a file to be emulated, adapt the emulator program to work with the aforementioned file, and then output the visuals. An idea like this would cover an all-in-one emulator to be used on numerous platforms, including the airplane systems and phones covered in the original patent.
Depending on how literally the update is read, it could also apply to the idea of the multiple parts or cores of a processor handling the steps up emulation for a single platform. Merely launching the emulator application through the processor could be seen as acting as identifying the files to be used. The act of adapting could then be seen as conforming to the platform the emulator is being used on. The "generating, by the processor, an audio visual presentation" could be aimed solely at devices powered by a system-on-chip (SOC), where GPUs and CPUs are bundled together to create a single processor.
Emulators on mobile platforms like Android and iOS are a constant issue for Nintendo, so the patent update is likely a way to bolster legal defense. Nintendo takes a strong stance against the use of illegally-imaged game read-only memory (ROM) files, pointing out that the use of emulators to play illegally-copied Nintendo games "represents the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers." On the company's legal page
, it even goes as far completely denouncing emulators instead of taking steps to legitimize them.
"Emulators developed to play illegally-copied Nintendo software promote piracy," says the company. "That's like asking why doesn't Nintendo legitimize piracy. It doesn't make any business sense. It's that simple, and not open to debate."
The patent update isn't doom and gloom for emulators, as certain aspects of the software remain legal. That is, the software used in the hardware consoles can be reverse engineered for use, but some hardware aspects and commercial uses are still prohibited. That's not to mention the legal gray areas that ROM files sit in, even considering backup provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Often these ROMs for old games are illegal, since many would need to be obtained by circumventing technological measures to create a copy or otherwise downloaded instead of backed up in a proper manner. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is currently seeking an exemption
to the DMCA for abandoned video games.
However, it isn't likely that Nintendo is updating the patent in order to move further into the mobile marketplace for smartphones and tablets. While the company announced that it is considering moving into other areas, most of the divestment into the mobile market is done to accentuate its existing games or devices. Nintendo does offer some older titles as digital downloads on its 3DS handheld and Wii U console, but the listing is far from complete. As long as Nintendo continues to make its own hardware, it's doubtful that the company would make it easier for consumers to purchase items, even games that are no longer published, through outside channels.