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What Is a ROM Image?

By Andy Hill
Updated: May 16, 2024

A read-only memory (ROM) image is a file consisting of the data from a ROM chip. It usually contains the data from firmware, an arcade board, or a video game. Used in embedded systems, ROM images can also be used for testing prior to permanent writing to a ROM chip. Actual ROM chip hardware has been replaced in the majority of cases by hard drives, flash memory chips, tapes, and optical drive-based media, such as compact disc read only memory (CD-ROM) and digital versatile disc read only memory (DVD-ROM). The term ROM image is most commonly used to describe any software image — optical or chip-based — that is used during the process of hardware emulation.

In hardware emulation, the term ROM image is incorrectly used to describe any kind of software image. Often, the images used for emulation are not exact copies of the original cartridge, disc, board, or tape image as they are optimized for use with emulators. Emulators use software to replicate the hardware operations of older computer systems, video game consoles, and arcade boards, and the associated image needs to be adapted or collated from several different ROM chip data packages to work correctly in the emulation software. This process of transferring ROM chip data to a ROM image is referred to as dumping.

A benefit that is gained from dumping this data to a ROM image is the ongoing preservation of aging and historically important computer and video game systems and the associated software. As the original media and hardware ages, the risk of permanent loss of the data continues to increase. Copyright holders are often against the dumping of ROM images due to the ability to distribute the image freely and easily over the Internet or on digital media.

The generally understood rule is that it is acceptable to posses ROM images for software if you have previously purchased and own an original copy of the data. The distribution of ROM images sees no further proceeds pass to the intellectual property (IP) holder, but people often prefer to use a ROM image rather than use an original disc or cartridge and risk permanently damaging the data. By utilizing the ROM image as a backup only, many users think that they are not in breach of copyright law, but the legality of this practice remains undefined fully.

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Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On May 28, 2014

@Markerrag -- you do have to wonder if the two opposing sides in the ROM dumping debate will ever sort out their differences.

There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful a compromise will be reached one day. Some owners of those old ROMs have chosen to simply not prosecute people who distribute them. Others have successfully asked sites that host those copyrighted ROMs to take them down and not make them available.

So, there has been some cooperation. Maybe there will be more in the future.

By Logicfest — On May 28, 2014

@Markerrag -- you have touched on a subject that has been hotly debated for a long time. On one hand, you have people who are fans of emulators arguing that there are no commercial versions of the games available, so what's the harm? They also state that dumping ROMs is the only reliable way to pull those programs from decaying hardware, so the emulation scene is actually saving those classic games from extinction

On the other hand, the owners of those games do have copyright law on their side and, legally, are correct in asserting their option to not toss those programs into the public domain. They argue that swiping those games is no different from stealing from people outright.

By Markerrag — On May 27, 2014

In most cases, the legality of owning a dumped ROM is not in question. For example, it has become popular to use emulators to read and play hundreds and sometimes thousands of ROMs from classic arcade games. How many people who use those have full, standup arcade games strewn around their homes or boxes full of the ROMS that powered them? Very few, indeed.

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