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The Reality of Patent Expirations for the NES 259

Posted by Zonk
from the not-getting-any-younger dept.
Tashimojo writes "Gamasutra's running a feature entitled 'Nintendo Entertainment System - Expired Patents Do Not Mean Expired Protection', an interesting read. From the article: 'This article originated when the Gamasutra editors noticed a number of online sources such as Wikipedia stating that it was now completely legal to make NES 'clone' consoles, because all of Nintendo's patents regarding the NES had expired. How true was this statement? We asked game IP lawyer S. Gregory Boyd the question: Are the NES patents expired? If so, is a company free to build and sell new NES-like systems?'"
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The Reality of Patent Expirations for the NES

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  • by laughingcoyote (762272) <{moc.eticxe} {ta} {lwohtsehgrab}> on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:22PM (#14012091) Journal

    Why should -any- restrictions last beyond the period of time that Nintendo is actively manufacturing and selling the system and/or games for it? What "incentive to create" would Nintendo lose if someone did make clones of an old, obsolete system that stopped making them money over a decade ago? TFA talked about "being aware of comprehensive protections" or some garbage like that-I'd say the more important advice is "learn when to let go." And since that's apparently not possible, the law needs to change.

  • Clones (Score:1, Insightful)

    by CriminalNerd (882826) on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:24PM (#14012109)

    Even if it is okay to sell/make clones of the NES hardware, the actual games themselves (well...most of them) are still protected by copyright(s). The NES came out in the 80s, and copyrights last at least 30 years. I don't see any Transformers yet, so I don't see the games themselves out of copyright yet. Time to pull out my electronics tools.

    P.S. Overly critical guy: You're not critical. You're flamebait.
  • Re:See Digg.com (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:25PM (#14012115)
    The reason I come to slashdot is not for the fresh stories, it's for the comments. As much content as Digg has, the comment system is a joke, and the people on there are immature idiots with nothing relevant to say.
  • Patents from 1995? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by qbwiz (87077) * <john@@@baumanfamily...com> on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:25PM (#14012116) Homepage
    Wait a minute - they're saying that a patent received in 1995 could apply to a product that was created in 1985. It took a long time for that patent to be processed by the USPTO.

    I also suspect that the 10NES cartridge authentication system is not additionally a console authentication system: the clone NES consoles shouldn't need to verify that the cartridges are authentic to get them to work.

    That leaves it up to trademarks, which I'm sure that it's not to hard work around. You could say that your console "plays games which are designed for the Nintendo Entertainment System (a trademark of Nintendo of America."

    As always, IANAL, though, so take these words with a grain of salt.
  • by CorporalKlinger (871715) on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:26PM (#14012122)
    The patents on the physical, hardware components of the Nintendo may have expired, but the code programmed into the various ROM's both in the console and in games is protected by international copyright. Those copyrights won't expire within most of our lifetimes, so I think it's safe to say that the "true" NES is protected. Whether or not the hardware could successfully be reverse engineered to yield the secrets of the system's operation for later use with completely new software remains to be seen. Still, though, if any of the original NES's code were reused or even used as an example for a new OS for the NES, Nintendo would have a good argument against whoever was duplicating their systems with regard to copyright rules.
  • Re:See Digg.com (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Liselle (684663) <slashdot@lis[ ]e.net ['ell' in gap]> on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:28PM (#14012138) Journal
    You're assuming that people come here for news. I'll let you in on a secret: a lot of us don't. We get our news elsewhere.

    The reason people come here is for the bloody comments, and that's why subscribers continue to put up with the "editors", the dupes, the time delay, the left-wing slant, CmdrTaco's whining, and the atrocious color scheme. Digg doesn't have the volume of interesting comments that Slashdot does, and until that happens, you're not going to see a mass exodus.

    I don't usually even read these stories as they "break", I let Slashdotters bitch about Sony/Microsoft/eggplants for a day or two and then come back and read what they have to say.

    Newsflash: not everyone has the same views and/or wants as you do.
  • by CorporalKlinger (871715) on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:35PM (#14012181)
    When Compaq reverse engineered the IBM ROM's (I think that was what happened), they had a lot to gain from doing so and thus invested a lot of money and resources in it. Why invest so much money in reverse engineering an old Nintendo, though, when in order to make up the R&D costs you would likely have to charge more than double what people on eBay charge for used, authentic units? I just don't think the market exists to warrant this type of investment.
  • by gid13 (620803) on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:41PM (#14012210)
    And what if, say, an oil company purchases the patent for some exciting new fuel technology, and then just sits on it so it won't threaten their business. Seems to me that forcing a company/individual to make an honest attempt to market their product to have any kind of IP law protections MIGHT help some, but fundamentally I think the whole idea of IP law needs to be at least rethought and possibly scrapped altogether.
  • Re:ROMs? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 11, 2005 @05:47PM (#14012242)
    All they would have to do is market it as "Nintendo-compatible." That's descriptive and there can be no confusion of the customer such as thinking that it is made by Nintendo, since Nintendo would not claim to be compatible with itself. Of course, the lack of a case rarely stops people from legal harassment anyway, but compatibility (interoperability) has been written into many IP laws including the DMCA. IBM didn't successfully sue people over IBM-compatible, afaik, and they have much deeper pockets than Nintendo.

    Presumably the rom code in the consoles to read the cartridge is under copyright though so they'd need to reimplement that in a compatible manner. Although why anyone would want to create a new hardware solution for a platform nobody uses that is emulated at better than full speed on modern hardware is beyond me.

    These are just my personal opinions, YMMV, IANAL
  • Re:See Digg.com (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 11, 2005 @06:03PM (#14012338)
    You're currently +1 Insightful, but I see your comedic genius, dear AC.
  • Re:See Digg.com (Score:1, Insightful)

    by JPyun (911266) on Friday November 11, 2005 @06:09PM (#14012387)
    As much content as Digg has, the comment system is a joke, and the people on there are immature idiots with nothing relevant to say.

    Wait... who modded that "Insightful"...

    It should be +5 Funny
  • by Quadraginta (902985) on Friday November 11, 2005 @06:13PM (#14012413)
    Come on. The article was written for wide public consumption by a lawyer, who makes his living giving advice for big bucks, and can be held liable for bad advice for equally big bucks. Realistically, is there any chance at all he'd come right out and publish a direct answer to the extremely interesting question of whether a specific clone system would be legal? When that's a question he can make large amounts of money answering privately?

    Ha ha. What he's done, basically, is give a long-winded "it depends" while strongly implying that anyone who even thinks about getting into this business should begin by hiring a top-notch IP lawyer, such as his own humble self. Golly, what a surprise.
  • Re:See Digg.com (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Overly Critical Guy (663429) on Friday November 11, 2005 @06:28PM (#14012522)
    "the comment system is a joke, and the people on there are immature idiots with nothing relevant to say."

    Digg, or Slashdot? Honestly, I can't tell which site you're referring to.

    Linus Torvalds himself said "Slashdot is this big public wanking session" where people who don't know what they're talking about come together.
  • by grumbel (592662) <grumbel@gmx.de> on Friday November 11, 2005 @06:39PM (#14012586) Homepage
    ### Why should -any- restrictions last beyond the period of time that Nintendo is actively manufacturing and selling the system and/or games for it?

    While I agree with you on the general point, Nintendo *is* selling NES games, just resently there was the NES classic series for GBA, soon there will be plenty of NES games for the Revolution for download and the Gamecube also had at least all the NES Zelda titles. While the games maybe old, Nintendo is still using them to make money. Sure, they probally won't sell much original NES systems these days, but the games are still of value.
  • Sigh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bogie (31020) on Friday November 11, 2005 @06:43PM (#14012611) Journal
    "I plan to notify Nintendo's piracy center because it ticks me off that someone is making money by ripping Nintendo off."

    Oh please. How about actually doing something useful for society instead? Give blood, write your congressman about how unfair DRM is, adopt a highway, volunteer to help the less fortunate this Thanksgiving, etc.

    Writing letters to rat on some retailer who actually provides jobs for people in your area so some multi-billion dollar company can collect a few bucks and also enforce the idea that IP lasts forever is about the last thing you should be doing. If your so insistant on doing something for nintendo how about you look up actual coders and people who made the artwork for those old games and send them a few bucks. At least then your heart would be in the right place.

    IP will be the downfall of society as we know it.

  • by gid13 (620803) on Friday November 11, 2005 @06:45PM (#14012634)
    The main difference is the intent of the legislation. IP law is designed to encourage innovation, and this use of it does the exact opposite. Real property law has completely different goals.
  • Missing the point (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ACNiel (604673) on Friday November 11, 2005 @06:55PM (#14012691)
    They will lose money off the hardware sales of cloned systems if they are trying to integrate a classic gaming interface in their new system.

    Yes, the basic idea in the story is only about their old hardware, but you don't need an imagination to see the money.

    If I have a ton of legal roms laying around, and CompanyA makes a clone console for $20, and CompanyN makes a new console that plays everything under the sun, plus my old legal roms, but charges $300, which will I buy. That depends on if I want to play new stuff or just my old stuff. If the clone machine exists, and I am not really into new games, then the $20 clone is in my living room without a second thought. If it isn't available to me, I will be more inclined to buy the new system. They haven't forced me to buy it, mind you, and they know I probably won't. But if there is a $20 alternative, I definitely won't.

    Now, actually using some imagination, I can take that a step further. Now I might be inclinde to buy new games. I have the new system, I might as well buy some games for it to see how much better it is.

    This won't happen a lot, but if it happens more than it costs to keep people from cloning the NES, then it is worth it. How many 35+ people have old NES cartridges, and have no inclination to buy a new console.
  • by Mr. Cancelled (572486) on Friday November 11, 2005 @07:43PM (#14012904)
    Copyright and patent laws were intended to protect someone's intellect, and to allow for works to eventually enter the public domain, ideally to benefit society as a whole once the inventer/creator has made some cash off their idea (IMHO... I'm sure that there's some /. lawyer wannabe getting ready to challenge my definition somewhere).

    But nothing really happens this way anymore it seems. Nowadays, when the public is supposed to see some benefits from something entering the public domain, the big, money hungry companies [disney.com] just find some greedy, two-faced politician [georgebush.com] who's willing to sell out the people who elected them for some easy cash, and they extend protections, and enact new laws to prevent people from getting what they're legally entitled to.

    And it's sad actually... Do you think that when the cpoyright laws were put into place, the lawmakers were thinking planning for this to happen? If so, then why set a duration in the first place?

    Actually, the fact that they did enact patent laws to protect the little guys (never mind that it's the guys with the money to twist the laws who are reaping all the protection these days), and they did set terms on copyright shows that at one time, politicians and lawmakers were there for the benefit of the people. Nowadays, it's only millionares(sp?) who get elected, largely due to they're having more money, which gives them more visibility. The laws are now so twisted and full of holes that they're totally meaningless.

    And I've seen some arguments in favor of laws extending copyright, and granting new rights to content owners, wherein it's argued that the original types of copyright, and patent laws aren't meaningful anyway, as the people who wrote them couldn't have envisioned what technology would bring to the world, but I think that's fucking insane! This is essentially saying that people who were smart enough to found and develop countries, who studied law, and who developed the world in which we live had no vision, or sense of the future? That's crazy talk...

    And this Nintendo thing's a great example of the problem: They made lots of money off the NES, knowing all the while that the patent laws would eventually expire, allowing anyone to build an NES machine, and now that they have (or are, as the case seems to be), they're suddenly saying "but, but, but..." as they see that people still are interested in this technology.

    I think it's about time that the laws started working for the people again, and those who try to circumvent these laws should be held accountable for violating them. Copyright limits were not put into effect just so that some wealthy, never-worked-a-day-in-their-lives people, who've inherited millions from their ancestors inventions, can use some of that money to keep you and I from getting what we're entitled to.

    But me ranting on my virtual soap box isn't going to change anything, and the population as a whole is too wrapped up in their reality TV, and Paris "Dog face" Hilton sexcapades to realize what they're losing out on. It's just so depressing where we as a society have let ourselves be led to. And the whole while, those passing the laws continue to claim that they're doing so for our best interests.

    George Carlin said it best in last weekends HBO special (and more people should watch it, and listen to what he's saying!): "They (the politicians) don't care about you. They don't." It's up to we, the people, to dig us out of the mess that we've let others make of our legal system.

    Ok... I'm done. the soapbox is free for someone else to rant on. I'm off to download all the NES Roms I can get my hands on! 8)
  • by nunchux (869574) on Friday November 11, 2005 @07:46PM (#14012920)
    Well, because the only way you can get rich innovating is if the law forbids every slacker sitting around doing nothing from immediately copying your invention (or work of art) and (since he doesn't have to pay back the enormous loans you took out to support yourself while developing your idea), undercut you by 50% on price and drive you promptly into bankruptcy.

    It should be added that the laws don't just protect a creator from slackers, it protects him from corporations. As much as Disney and Microsoft abuse copyright and patent laws, these laws are also fundamental protection to keep companies with much more money and many more lawyers from stealing (and/or subverting) the intellectual property of the little guy-- be it a lone inventor, a writer, even an upstart tech company with a good idea.
  • Not true any more (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Steeltoe (98226) on Friday November 11, 2005 @08:16PM (#14013087) Homepage
    The term of a century for copyright law is chosen more or less just to correspond to the artist's lifetime.

    That may well have been the intention from the start, but the length is now a lifetime PLUS 70 years: a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countri es'_copyright_length">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki /List_of_countries'_copyright_length

    There is now dispute wether current copyright will ever expire, since the media companies like Disney seem to extend the period when the next deadline is coming up.. The company then manage to rip off every folklore and everything in the public domain they can get their hands on, but never give anything back to the public domain, as was the entire intention behind both copyright and patent-laws..

    Patent law is limited to about 20 years, that being the time it's considered "fair" to let you dominate the market for your invention. After that, the generics come, and you better have moved on to something new.

    20 years to stifle the market. 20 years of software is ancient news. What software are you using that is 20 years old, except the RSA-algorithm, which was indeed patented..

    I'm not cynical, but you need to present the correct facts.
  • Re:Marketability? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by petermgreen (876956) <plugwash.p10link@net> on Friday November 11, 2005 @11:21PM (#14013774) Homepage
    a system that only played nes carts would be of somewhat limited marketability.

    Oh really? What makes you think that?


    1: it would have to be quite bulky and/or not enclose the cart (nes carts aren't exactly small)

    2: if you started seriously marketing them in any one area you'd cause a run on stocks of old nes carts locally. Maybe this wouldn't be a problem if you only sold them online though.

    nes knockoffs bundled with a huge rom full of nes games will be as illegal as ever.

    Not if the "huge rom full of nes games" is actually "The Best of PDROMS.de". There's a project going on over at nesdev.com called "Garage Cart" to do just that, and I'm contributing a tetramino game.

    true but just how good are those PD roms?
  • Re:ROMs? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by geminidomino (614729) * on Tuesday November 15, 2005 @04:20AM (#14033235) Journal
    Noone knows but the GBA series were that expensive at least in part because GBA carts are expensive to make (more than ten bucks a piece, I think).

    That I don't buy for a second, if for no other reason that a GBA cart can hold at least 128 megabits(FF:DoS) and the largest NES game is 8 megabits (Dragon Quest/Warrior 4). The emulation code takes apparently takes up 31 mbit (I found this by looking at rom sizes for the original NES Zelda (1 megabit) and the Classic NES Series (32 mbit). It's pretty clear by playing it, they didn't do any recoding since it has the same sort of glitches the old NES version had (screen/music slowdowns with too many sprites, etc). Even with that overhead, they could get 3-4 games per cart, but they don't even put the two Zelda games on one cart.

    So a good amount of it might be manufacturing cost, but there's plenty room left for fleecing given the design decisions.

    Now that I think about it, I doubt the Rev's download-on-demand will be particularly good at all. Many if not most of the best classic NES games weren't made by Nintendo at all (Castlevania, Megaman, etc) so will likely not be available.

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