Nintendo and UK High Court Sound the Death Knell for Chiptunes

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Photo: Ben Mason - Chiptune artist nullsleep performs at 8staticPhoto: Ben Mason - Chiptune artist nullsleep performs at 8static

Photo: Ben Mason

Let’s talk straight here, people. In gamer circles the term “homebrew” is often used as a code word for piracy. This certainly doesn’t mean that anyone who owns a Game Boy flash cartridge or runs custom firmware on his PSP is a pirate, but sometimes this homebrew argument is invoked with a sly nod and wink in reference to the fact that the same devices and applications that allow the burgeoning code monkey to create his own games can also be used to play illicit ROMs.

Still, despite their sinister leanings viable options do exist that enable industrious programmers to develop for their favorite handheld systems without the sizable hassle and cost associated with acquiring an official development kit. Or do they?

Last month, at approximately the same time that we Yanks were informed that new DMCA exemptions did indeed make it legal to jailbreak our iPhones, our friends in the UK were told by the High Court that “game copiers,” specifically those designed for Nintendo’s highly successful DS platform, had been ruled illegal.

The fact that such devices can be used for legitimate, non-infringing means made little difference in the mind of the court.

Nintendo said it was “pleased that the court was not persuaded by the defendant’s arguments, claiming that game copiers are lawful, as they allow for the play of ‘homebrew’ applications”.

“The court affirmed that game copiers first circumvent Nintendo’s security systems before any non-infringing application can be played on Nintendo’s handheld products,” it said in a statement.

Essentially this means that flash carts are outlawed less in the name of actual game piracy and more due to the fact that, even before pirated or homebrew titles can be loaded and executed, they unquestionably skirt Nintendo’s copy protection.

I understand the financial time bomb that exists with regard to a device that allows users to bootleg an entire system’s game library for less than the price of a single new release, but I can’t help but wonder if Nintendo is truly throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In addition to the highly creative homebrew development community, this also effectively stifles a sizable portion of Europe’s thriving chiptune music scene. Pixelh8, the artist who drew my attention to this story, elaborated further, pointing out that the law itself states that the use of copier devices, like the ubiquitous R4, is prohibited in any commercial setting. This means that those who once relied on such cartridges for live gigs may now find themselves effectively stripped of their instruments.

As many have already pointed out, had this legislation existed a decade ago the chip music community of today would simply not exist. Further, as Pixelh8 himself so succinctly put it, because of this decision “100s of people will never get to make music or realise they could be a programmer.”

It’s truly a sad turn of events, and another unfortunate side effect of video game piracy.

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