When The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom began leaking online, Nintendo initially fought back with standard copyright takedowns of screenshots, video streams, and entire Discord servers hosting links to pirated versions of the game. Now it appears to be ramping up the offensive, going after some of the emulation tools used to play the game early themselves.
“Nintendo has just issued multiple DMCA takedown requests to GitHub, including for Lockpick, the tool for dumping keys from YOUR OWN Switch, which is absolutely ludicrous - pirates aren’t gonna be sourcing keys from their own consoles!” homebrew programmer ItsSimonTime tweeted on May 4 (via GBATemp). “I’ll add information regarding the other repositories taken down as soon as I find out what they are!”
This apparent new clampdown kicked off at the end of a week in which the biggest Switch game of the year, Tears of the Kingdom, began spreading online after some physical copies were apparently sold ahead of the May 12 release date. Some fans went into lockdown mode to avoid spoilers, while others lurked on Discord servers and subreddits asking those playing (some of whom have now finished the game) what they thought of the Breath of the Wild sequel and to reveal various secrets they’d already discovered.
It’s amid that climate that Nintendo is seemingly trying to block some emulation-related homebrew tools in general. A Twitter user responding to ItsSimonTime shared screenshots of an email from Github’s Trust and Safety team alerting them that a takedown notice was received for one of their uploads. “They also sent DMCA to people who were hosting prod.keys in github,” wrote llIllIIIlII1. “Here’s mine, must have accidentally forked it [a] long time ago.”
The utility Lockpick, which has been around for years, is an essential part of the Switch emulation process, allowing users to dump their console’s unique encryption keys to their PC to play ROM dumps of Switch games on emulators like Ryujinx or Yuzu. While emulation in general is often associated with piracy, some enthusiasts make use of it to simply play games they already own on higher-spec machines or with mods and other gameplay-enhancing hacks. Nintendo’s reported DMCA claims, if accurate, argue that tools like Lockpick still violate its intellectual property rights by helping players bypass the restrictions on its games and hardware.
“The use of Lockpick with a modified Nintendo Switch console allows users to bypass Nintendo’s Technological Measures for video games; specifically, Lockpick bypasses the Console TPMs [Trusted Platform Modules] to permit unauthorized access to, extraction of, and decryption of all the cryptographic keys, including product keys, contained in the Nintendo Switch,” reads part of the notice Twitter user llIllIIIlII1 received from Github. “The decrypted keys facilitate copyright infringement by permitting users to play pirated versions of Nintendo’s copyright-protected game software on systems without Nintendo’s Console TPMs or systems on which Nintendo’s Console TPMs have been disabled.”
As some emulation defenders have argued, however, they need Lockpick to extract keys from their own Switch consoles to emulate games they already own. “This is ridiculous. this is quite literally the only legal way to emulate switch games, dumping your OWN keys,” tweeted indie dev and Mario fan game maker MorsGames. “I’m now forced to obtain keys in illegal ways to emulate my own games thanks Nintendo.”
It’s not yet clear if or when the Lockpick source code or other Switch-related emulation and homebrew tools will be removed from Github, as they are currently all still available. Update 5/9/2023 8:50 a.m. ET: Lockpick has since been removed from Github.
“GitHub does not generally comment on decisions to remove content,” a spokesperson for the Microsoft-owned company said. “However, in the interest of transparency, we share every DMCA takedown request that we action publicly. For 1201 claims like this, we follow our circumvention review process. You can read more about how this works in our DMCA Takedown Policy.”
But the escalating threats could have a broader chilling effect, and have already convinced at least one emulation team to halt their efforts. The duo behind Skyline Emulator, a Switch emulator for Android devices, announced they would be shutting down development.
“It is with great sadness that we bring you this news. Recently, Nintendo has issued a DMCA takedown notice against Lockpick RCM which will likely come into effect on Monday, Lockpick is a core part of legally dumping keys from the Switch,” the pair wrote on their Discord server. “They claim that it circumvents their copy protection (TPMs) and therefore violates their copyright. We find ourselves in a position where we are potentially violating their copyright by continuing to develop our project, Skyline, by dumping keys from our own Switches.”
Nintendo, the Skyline authors, ItsSimonTime, and llIllIIIlII1 did not immediately respond to requests for comment.