Arr! Today be talk like a pirate day, so let’s talk about the fuzzy boundary between piracy, popularization, and preservation.
I’m all for creators being able to profit off their work, and not about to defend people who pirate content just to get out of paying retail price. And some media is a lot harder to justify pirating than others; I can’t think of an acceptable reason to pirate e-books, for example. (It’s also a bad idea because you’re more likely to get malware than the correct book.)
But I want to talk about ROMs. Video games are currently the media for which unofficial alternatives are being closed off the most effectively. The fact that Nintendo skipped the usual cease-and-desist and went straight to suing for millions (meaning the owner of LoveROMs is pretty much ruined) scared a lot of other sites into removing all their Nintendo ROMs, or in some cases, including EmuParadise which was widely considered both the most complete and the safest, even all their ROMs.
This is bad because video games are also arguably the media whose official creators are doing the least effective job at preservation. And there are certainly thousands of games that have never been officially available since their original released, many of them likely to remain that way. Even something like Panzer Dragoon Saga, a highly regarded game that’s not much over 20 years old, would be lost already if it wasn’t pirated. (Aside from however many original discs still work, but the people who have the game but a non-functioning Saturn still have to rely on emulation (and download a BIOS) to play it.) There have also been a few games that got official rereleases later that were only possible because dumped ROMs existed.
And, of course, then there are fan translations. (And other hacks that provide new ways to play, but I’m mostly focusing on translations.) And sometimes games that don’t really need translation but were still only ever released in one country anyway; for example, emulation is what made the terrible Transformers game on the Famicom almost as infamous elsewhere as it is in Japan.
This is the most important role of emulation to me; making games available outside their original regions and languages. The first game I ever emulated was Final Fantasy V (after what was already its second chance at being officially translated was cancelled). Since then I’ve played a number of other games that were never available outside Japan. Including, of course, Mother 3, one of the best RPGs ever made. Playing these games wouldn’t be possible for me without ROMs, and because it wouldn’t be possible, I can’t agree with the argument that they represent lost sales for anyone.
And here’s the thing; for games that I played fan translations of before official ones were released (such as Final Fantasy V), I bought the official release; and I’d certainly do the same thing with Mother 3, as would I think the majority of its fanbase. Same with people who emulate old obscurities because they don’t want to obsessively wait for something to show up on eBay; many would buy a reasonably priced official release if it existed. People who download ROMs are buying the mini retro consoles that are coming out, and buying retro games that are available for download on modern consoles.
I’m not saying that potential customers who would choose emulation over buying an official release when both options are available don’t exist, but they’re not the majority of people who emulate. If anything, emulation is what built up the fanbase that bought Earthbound on virtual console, and created the demand for unreleased games like StarFox 2 to get released.