The site, called RomNet, permits participants to exchange software copied from video game cartridge chips called ROM, or read-only memory. The software extracted from ROM can then be played on personal computers using emulation software such as UltraHLE.
While sites already exist from which people can download games, RomNet offers the same sort of flea market ambience that Napster brought to MP3 music files. Instead of only being able to find games at a central server, people can browse for games located on any and all of the computers hooked into RomNet. In addition, because the files aren't stored on a central server, it becomes more difficult for developers to crack down on software pirates.
The founder of the site, 17-year-old Philadelphia programmer Jeffrey Freeman, is aware of the piracy concerns and the reaction his service might prompt from game software companies. "Sure, it is a concern that they may try to shut us down, despite the fact that we don't permit piracy, but I am confident in the law and believe we will prevail," Freeman said.
RomNet doesn't monitor what type of files are shared, Freeman said. "I make sure to mention that you are not allowed to trade (pirated software), but there is no way to stop it due to the similarities," he said. There are many programmers who like to write games in the ROM format for their own enjoyment, Freeman said.
While software written by hobbyists is certainly a possibility, that's probably not going to be the initial appeal, said Haverhill, Mass., student Wayne Chang, who has sampled the RomNet service. "RomNet right now will probably be used for sharing commercial games, but there's a significant interest in sharing ROMs created by the community," he said.
Napster is a file-sharing service that is in the midst of a lawsuit brought by the Recording Industry Association of America. Though Napster's fate is uncertain, there's no question the company would be worse off if it stored MP3 music files itself instead of just providing a service that enables members to locate those files on each other's computers.
RomNet is aware of piracy issues, but curiously it has made its file-sharing terms more liberal in just the past day.
Yesterday, the RomNet site said, "Users may not download a ROM unless it is known to be freeware and not copyrighted." Today, though, those terms were relaxed: "Users may not download a ROM unless they own the game itself," the site states. The new terms appear to expand the universe of games exchanged on the site to include those protected by copyrights.
Some fear that "peer-to-peer" software sharing, which Napster enables, will threaten the entertainment industry by making it easy to evade copyright restrictions on redistribution of music, movies and other digital information.
Regardless of how files are shared, there are legal issues surrounding the use of video game ROMs on ordinary PCs.
Emulator software that allows PCs to play discs intended for game consoles has proven to be a legally contentious business for companies such as Bleem and Connectix, which have been embroiled in court battles with Sony.
Emulation poses a real financial threat to Sony, Nintendo and other companies that depend on game sales to survive. These companies generally sell their consoles at a loss, making up the difference through software sales.
The first version of RomNet went live last week, and already thousands of people have visited the site. Lead programmer Jeffrey Freeman has been issuing steady upgrades to the client software to improve connection speed and other factors.
One potential concern with the RomNet software is that it displays the Internet addresses of people sharing files--information that participants who are worried about copyright enforcement aren't likely to want broadcast.
Searching on the site reveals software for Nintendo's Gameboy, Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 gaming systems, as well as for Sega's Genesis. Games online include commercial titles such as "Goldeneye," "Pokemon," "Sonic the Hedgehog," "Afterburn," "Tetris," "Earthworm Jim" and others.
Games can be copied by backing up the program to a Zip disk, then transferring the Zip disk to a hard drive, programmers familiar with the technology said.
The site is largely a hobby, though Freeman does charge for advertising on the site. "It is getting so big, we may need to make it a business just to support the bandwidth, but the users will never pay," Freeman said.