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This page includes some jargon that hasn't been added to the site's glossary yet. I'll be around to fix this later, but sorry for the inconvenience in the meantime.

Isn't it illegal to download video games?

An overview of the problem

Over the years, the internet has become a key part of people's everyday lives, and what you can do online has changed dramatically. This can lead to confusion over whether or not certain activities are really legal.

Take digital music. Not too long ago, record companies were making headlines because they were suing grandmothers and children for illegally downloading music from file sharing websites. Music streaming services like Napster found themselves looking down the barrel of similar lawsuits. The message was clear: If you wanted to get music legally, you did so by purchasing actual CDs, not by downloading MP3s.

Today, downloading MP3s isn’t just the norm, it’s how you expect to purchase music. Services like Amazon Music or iTunes are huge businesses, and there are a lot of streaming services like Spotify and Netflix bringing entertainment into your home over the internet. The idea that these services are illegal just sounds absurd.

A similar change has occurred with video games. In the past, the only real way you could legally obtain a game was to purchase a physical copy of it from a store or mail-in offer. Today, most computer games are not only sold online, but the marketplaces that you buy them from typically offer the download links themselves. Just like the music industry, the video game industry has grown to accept the internet as a way to sell and distribute their wares.

But, and this is very important, just because legal methods to purchase media online exist does not mean that every website or service offering downloads is legitimate. Illegally distributing copies of digital products, known as piracy, is still actively practiced in today's world.

On this page, I'll break a few things down to help clarify what's legal and what isn't.

Confusion or control?

In my experience, the idea that all downloaded content is illegal tends to be mentioned by only two groups of people, and this suggests to me that there's more going on than a simple case of misinformation.

The first group of people I see making this claim are older adults who don't use computers very much. These people are old enough to remember the increasingly insane lawsuits that constantly made headlines back in the day, and for whatever reason, they've simply never had to think about the way newer technology works. When you treat computers as a magical "black box", as the vast majority of people do, the important thing is that it works, not how. Hopefully some points that I'll be making further down the page will be useful in explaining to these people how things have changed, but at the end of the day, it's important to remember that their point of view had merit at one time.

The other group of people who bring this concept up are computer savvy children who are frustrated over their parent's strict rules regarding what the child is allowed to do online. As I was once a computer savvy child myself, I'm pretty sure that there's more going on than these children realize. Specifically, the idea that all downloads are illegal might be a method to control or limit what someone's kids are getting into on the internet. Children frequently believe that they can hide their activity from their less computer savvy parents, but the thought that the FBI or whomever might come after them if they break rules online might curb their enthusiasm for installing any and every app that they run across. Ideally people shouldn't have to lie to maintain order in their own household, but I can understand why parents may use this approach.

After all, there's a reason I have a lot of experience reinstalling operating systems, and it has nothing to do with how my parents used the family computer.

Some thoughts about torrents and file sharing tools

There are all sorts of ways of sending information over the internet. These are typically known as "networking protocols". For example, the protocol you used to access this page was probably the one known as Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, or HTTPS for short. It's the most common protocol used by modern web browsers. There are many others, and during that lawsuit crazy era, two specific protocols became especially infamous. These are commonly known as "torrenting" and "file sharing".

Torrents work via special files that coordinate multiple computers. To speed things up, the data represented by the torrent file is chopped up into pieces, and then the pieces are shared around among all of the computers using the same torrent. Delegating the workload between multiple computers like this allows everybody to share information faster than a normal download would permit, and it benefits distributors by allowing clients to handle some of the traffic.

File sharing, on the other hand, is done using specialized programs. These programs allow people to trade files with anybody else on the same file sharing network. Users can specify which folders on their systems are available for trading, and then the software makes these files available to everybody else. Users can then freely download whatever they want from one another.

The problem with both concepts isn't that they exist or that anybody can use them. It's what people trade using them. Think about it: what sort of files do you have on your computer? You probably have things like music, games, or ebooks stored away on your hard drive, but, how much of this stuff is legally yours?

And that's the core problem here: the stuff people are most likely to trade via these systems are things that they don't have permission to distribute, and more often than not, that's exactly how people used these tools.

Personally, I'd stay away from file sharing programs altogether, and reserve torrents for things that are intended to be shared between users, like Linux distributions.

How to spot legal websites

There's a popular saying that goes something like this: bankers don't learn to spot counterfeit money by studying counterfeits. They study the genuine article until they've learned to recognize it. This holds true for many things, including learning where it's safe to find and download new games and other apps. So, let's end this discussion by summarizing a few simple ways to spot a legitimate website online.

The website is already known to be legitimate
Unsurprisingly enough, some websites that offer downloads have proven themselves to be reliable and legitimate over time. This would include places like Amazon, Steam, Origin, Sourceforge, and Github. An illegal business generally can't afford to garner that much attention without the authorities shutting it down.
Other legitimate websites will vouch for it
If a service is legitimate, other legitimate services will vouch for it. For example, you can search "Is ____ legal?" in most search engines and get a straightforward answer. If you trust Wikipedia, looking up the website or game on there should give you an article with an explanation about it and a link to where to get said game.
Some things are always illegal
With very few exceptions, you can't use your computer to legally download games that were made for consoles. Emulation is a very dubious road, as you can only do it legally if you have permission to use the software you're emulating. For example, using the Mega Man Legacy Collection to play the NES Mega Man games is legal, downloading the ROMs of those games and playing them on an emulator is not.

Abandonware, software that is no longer sold or maintained, is a gray area. This is because some abandonware is only available as shareware, which is a license that permits everybody to distribute and use it. But, using any "abandonware" programs that aren't under a freeware or shareware license is definitely illegal. If you're unsure, avoid abandonware altogether.