BBC News UK Edition
 You are in: Science/Nature  
News Front Page
N Ireland
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Tuesday, 17 October, 2000, 07:06 GMT 08:06 UK
Return of the computer dinosaurs
BBC Micro
The BBC Micro was a popular computer in the 1980s
Home computers of the 1980s now gathering dust in attics are being resurrected through the internet. Today's fast PCs are more than capable of breathing life back into old computers through emulation.

But, as BBC News Online's Darren Waters reports, there are legal considerations.

Depending on your age, the words ZX Spectrum or BBC Micro will either provoke a blank, quizzical stare or a bout of warm dewy-eyed nostalgia.

If you are in your late-20s to late-30s, you may remember the once great home computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum, the BBC Micro, Commodore 64 and Dragon 32.

Twenty years ago, home computing experienced a revolution, as cheap and affordable microcomputers swamped the market place.

They may be considered obsolete but these microcomputers can be brought back to life, without having to scramble around in the loft, through the use of emulators.

Computing history

Emulators, now stored on the internet, are programs running on a PC that can mimic the functions of the 80s computers and run the old software.

Games like Donkey Kong, Jet Set Willy and Horace Goes Skiing, veritable dinosaurs in terms of their sophistication, can be played again through what is known as retrogaming.

Manic Miner
Manic Miner: One of the most popular games of the 1980s
In fact, there is a burgeoning cyber culture on the net where such games and emulators can be downloaded.

Paul Burgin, who wrote a Dragon 32 emulator and runs a website devoted to the old computer, said: "For most people that get in touch with me, it's because there's a particular game that they want to play again, one which they loved when they were younger.

"Emulators provide a convenient way of keeping hold of a part of computing history whilst participating in the state-of-the-art.

"They are also a great way of preserving our computing heritage - they don't wear out, use no desk space and gather no dust."

Legal implications

But before you start firing up your search engines to look for emulators a word of warning: in some cases, it is illegal to emulate computers of old and illegal to play old games on your PC.

"I'm no lawyer but I believe that copyrights from the 1980s will still be valid today," said Burgin.

Emulators don't wear out, use no desk space and gather no dust

Paul Burgin
"But that hasn't stopped a lot of software from appearing on the internet."

Terry Anslow, chief investigator for the European Leisure Software Association (Elspa), the body which protects and enforces software copyright, said: "It is a criminal act to copy these games from the internet.

"By emulating a computer system or game, you are effectively reproducing a trademark and, without permission, that is an infringement of intellectual property rights."

Waived rights

But pro-Emulator campaign group Clear argues that many of these games are no longer commercially available, that many of the software houses have shut down and the programmers themselves are often keen to have people continue to use their games.

One pro-emulation site lists 50 programmers which it claims have allowed use of their games through emulators.

Elite: A classic game from the 1980s
Ian Bell, who co-wrote the classic Elite game on the BBC Micro with David Braben, runs a website with versions of the game available for download.

And Jeff Minter, a programmer on the Commodore 64 and Atari ST computers, has also waived his copyright on old games.

Mr Anslow said: "There is still a rights holder somewhere. Copying is no different from any other crime. Just because we are in the digital age doesn't mean that things are up for grabs."

But he conceded that where copyright had been waived then there was no crime.

Store shelves

Amstrad, which owns the Spectrum copyright, is perfectly happy for users to "resurrect" the computer through emulation.

"We are more than happy to see people continuing to emulate our old computers as it keeps the Amstrad/Sinclair brands known," said Cliff Lawson, principal software design engineer at Amstrad plc.

We are more than happy to see people continuing to emulate our old computers

Cliff Lawson Amstrad/Sinclair
But he said: "The grey area involved in emulation is that there is very little point in emulating a Spectrum without having some software to run on it."

The US-based Interactive Digital Software Association, which acts as a security patrol for the world wide web, said "the copyrights of games are valid even if the games are not found on store shelves, and copying or distributing those games is a copyright infringement".

It also points out that copyright, in America at least, lasts for 75 years and that the playing of "classic games" is a crime and not just nostalgia. Websites found to be infringing copyright are shut down.

Contemporary systems

Despite the age of these games, one website boasted that more than 2,000,000 games had been downloaded in just two months.

Another site, World of Spectrum, claims 60,000 games are downloaded each day.

Unfortunately, some websites are actively depriving programmers and companies of revenue by emulating more contemporary systems, such as the Playstation or Nintendo 64.

The rule of thumb for anyone wanting to resurrect a virtual version of their old computers is first to establish whether it is legal to emulate a particular computer and then to check if a favourite game can be played without breaching copyright.

If you can satisfy both those requirements then your PC can transport you back to the 1980s.

See also:

10 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
10 Oct 00 | South Asia
07 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Links to more Science/Nature stories are at the foot of the page.

 E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Science/Nature stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | World | UK | England | N Ireland | Scotland | Wales |
Politics | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology |
Health | Education | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |