Jun 6, 2022 - Technology

Nintendo wanted hacker's prison sentence to turn heads

Illustration of two Nintendo characters in soccer gear facing off
Image: Nintendo

Nintendo described the sentencing of a hacker earlier this year as a “unique opportunity” to send a message to all gamers about video game piracy.

Why it matters: A newly released transcript of the Feb. 10 sentencing of Gary Bowser provides rare insight, directly from Nintendo, about the company’s grievances.

  • Bowser, a Canadian national, pled guilty last year to U.S. government cybercrime charges over his role as a top member of Team Xecuter. The group sold tech that circumvented copyright protections and enabled the Nintendo Switch and other systems to play pirated games.
  • Authorities estimated the piracy cost Nintendo upward of $65 million over nearly a decade and even compelled the company to spend resources releasing a more secure model of the Switch.

What they’re saying: “This is a very significant moment for us,” Nintendo lawyer Ajay Singh told the court at the time, as he laid out the company’s case against piracy and awaited the sentencing.

  • “It’s the purchase of video games that sustains Nintendo and the Nintendo ecosystem, and it is the games that make the people smile,” Singh said. “It’s for that reason that we do all we can to prevent games on Nintendo systems from being stolen.”
  • He noted Nintendo’s losses from Team Xecuter’s piracy and sounded a note of sympathy for smaller non-Nintendo game makers whose works are also pirated.
  • And he wove in a complaint about cheating, which he said Team Xecuter’s hacks enabled. Cheating could scare off honest players and upset families: “Parents should not be forced to explain to their children why people cheat and why sometimes games are not fair, just because one person wants an unfair advantage.”

Sympathetic audience: At the hearing, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik noted that TV and movies glorify hackers as “sticking it to the man,” suggesting that “big companies are reaping tremendous profits and it’s good for the little guy to have this.”

  • “What do you think?” Lasnik asked Nintendo’s lawyer at one point. “What else can we do to convince people that there’s no glory in this hacking/piracy?”
  • “There would be a large benefit to further education of the public,” Singh replied.

The hacker’s side: In brief remarks directly to Lasnik, Bowser said longer prison time wouldn’t scare off hackers. “There’s so much money to be made from piracy that it’s insignificant,” he said.

Bowser was sentenced to 40 months, compared to the 19 sought by Bowser’s lawyer, who said the hacker had already served much of that time while awaiting trial. Bowser’s lawyer said that nearly six months of it was spent alone in a cell for 23 hours a day, due to COVID-19 and other health concerns.

  • “I think there is a role to be played here in terms of a message,” said Lasnik, who said in normal times he’d have given the full 60 months requested by federal officials.

Later that day, Nintendo issued a press release thanking the authorities for prosecuting Bowser.

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