Here’s what really happened with Dolphin’s blocked Steam release

There was quite a shock for the game emulation community at the end of May, as the planned Steam release for popular GameCube and Wii emulator Dolphin was abruptly cancelled under the looming shadow of Nintendo’s legal opinions. At the time there was some confusion as to whether it was a DMCA takedown notice, an opinion, and a lack of clarity over what this meant for the Dolphin project as a whole, but the team behind the emulator has now explained exactly what happened and what comes next.

In short:

  • Dolphin as a whole is not believed to be in legal danger.
  • Dolphin doesn’t think they need to remove the Wii Common Key.
  • Dolphin won’t be coming to Steam, because Valve say they’d need to get Nintendo’s go-ahead (which definitely won’t happen)

Here’s the abridged sequence of events – though you can also visit the Dolphin Emu Blog for their own explanation.

With the release of Dolphin “coming soon” back in May, Valve initiated contact with Nintendo of America to ensure that they wouldn’t be breaching copyright law with its release. Having been prompted, Nintendo’s lawyers requested that Valve block the release on Steam and cited the DMCA as justification. That message was forwarded to Dolphin with Valve stating that they would need to come to an agreement with Nintendo for the release to go ahead.

This did cause a little bit of panic, and the initial statement from Dolphin led to the some confusion and a little rampant speculation to boot.

The lynchpin for Nintendo’s legal opinion is that Dolphin includes the Wii Common Key for game decryption, and they stated to Valve that Dolphin is “primarily for circumvention” of this encryption. Dolphin’s stance is that there are so, so many parts of the emulator and software stack that are nothing to do with Wii game decryption, including GameCube games and bespoke homebrew, that they are protected by the reverse engineering exemption in the DMCA with the common key included or without, oh, and that you can’t actually copyright a computer generated string of letters and numbers anyway.

All of this protection is thanks to 17 U.S.C. § 1201(f) in the US, and it’s likely this reason why Nintendo’s lawyers simply fired off a quick “We’d rather you didn’t” to valve instead of actually trying to test this provision in a court of law, where they would have a high likelihood of losing. That would in turn create a precedent for further emulation cases that they definitely wouldn’t want.

So, after all the panic, Dolphin isn’t going anywhere… and it’s certainly not going to Steam. Valve owns the storefront and needs to act in their own self interests to avoid the potential of legal trouble (as remote as it might actually be).

However, just because Dolphin isn’t coming to Steam doesn’t mean Steam can’t come to Dolphin. Some of the features that were in development for the Steam release will feature in the regular distro, including a full “Big Picture” UI that can be used with a controller and other quality of life improvements that were prepared for a broader audience.

Source: Dolphin

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