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CBM 64 licence deal heralds emulator clamp down

Commercial providers, watch out

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Update Dead for almost a decade, the Commodore brand name is about to be re-animated and with it one if the erstwhile home computer giant's best-known machines, the Am... sorry, the Commodore 64.

Well, sort of. Tulip, the Dutch PC maker which acquired Commodore in 1997, has licensed the C64 brand to one Ironstone. The latter is hoping to meet demand for retro-style games by offering titles that run on today's operating systems.

Tulip has licensed to Ironstone "the exclusive rights to exploit the official Commodore C64 web-portal and use of the Commodore 64 brand name", the companies' joint statement says. Both companies "invite the Commodore community to join the official Commodore C64 web portal". Tulip will "not allow unauthorised use of the Commodore brand".

In short, join us or we'll get you. Commercial sites - of which there are over 300, almost all unlicensed, Tulip claims - will presumably have to cough up cash to continue using the Commodore and/or C64 brand names.

Tulip has been here before, reader Niall Tracey reminds us. "This is not Tulip's first attempt to trade off the C64 name. The WebIT 64 was a WinCE-powered 486 with C64 emulation," he writes. Later canned, the WebIT was largely a glorified set-top box, says Niall.

Interestingly, Tulip has granted Ironstone the right to develop future entertainment-oriented products, while it retains the right to C64-branded business systems.

Ironstone also gets to exploit the official site, to "focus and harness the power of the Commodore C64 user base and to efficiently provide the services required by these individuals for a fee... Through its web portal, Ironstone will market the official C64 emulator in various software and hardware formats. The games offered by the Ironstone web-portal will include the famous 'classic' C64 games as well as exciting new games".

Tulip plans to pitch "its Commodore branded products" through the portal. "Tulip will introduce, the upcoming months, new hardware products under the Commodore brand name, being able to use the C64 emulator," the company says.

Unsurprisingly, all this is touted as being for the fans' benefit. "The community craves acknowledgement and authenticity from the true Commodore C64 brand," they say. The portal will "unite this massive global fan base of passionate enthusiasts". The deal is a "huge breakthrough for the millions of C64 enthusiasts and retro gamers".

Protecting brand names is one thing. It's fair for Tulip to try and get something back from organisations that trade commercially on the Commodore brand without authorisation. Neither Tulip nor Ironstone has said what commercial terms it will offer those 300-odd commercial operations.

Ironstone Creative Director Darren Melbourne told The Register that he foresees action being taken against those organisations "within the week".

However, Melbourne was keen to stress that the company isn't going to put the squeeze on the many fan sites. Non-commercial sites will be allowed to continue just as they are, he pledged. "The C64 has only stayed alive because of the fans," he added.

As for the unofficial emulation development efforts, many of them open source projects, of the kind we've seen in the past from the likes of Nintendo and Sony.

"We couldn't stop them if we wanted to," he said.

Indeed, quite apart from the validity of reverse engineering, there's the thorny question of who actually owns the core C64 firmware. While the Amiga was sold off as brand plus technology, Tulip only bought the C64 brand. Now no one knows who has the rights to the firmware. Suing for brand infringement is the only weapon Tulip and Ironstone have - they can't fight on copyright infringement grounds.

That applies as much to the companies' own emulation products as anyone else's. Speaking of which, Melbourne even held out the possibility that such developers may be invited to collaborate on the official emulator. "No one knows it better than they do," he said. ®

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