A City banker who pirated Internet software was jailed for two and a half years last friday as a judge warned that the cost of piracy to the software industry was "staggering".
Alex Bell, 29, and three others ran the UK end of DrinkorDie - an international code-cracking group - and thought of themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, the Old Bailey was told.
The court heard they were not in it for the money but the thrill of being able to crack security codes and release free software on to the Internet.
The case brings to an end Britain's biggest investigation into computer piracy, which costs UK businesses £1bn a year.
"The activities of all four of you struck at the heart of the software trade," Judge Paul Focke told the defendants. "The loss of software to owners through piracy is staggering. Also, the effect on related businesses and the lives of employees can be rendered catastrophic."
He said it had been estimated that one third of software being used in Britain was pirated and resulted in a loss of revenue.
"In your cases, it is impossible to quantify the losses as a result of your activities," he told the defendants.
Bell, of Chafford Hundred, Essex, and Steven Dowd, 39, of Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside, were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud following a five-month trial earlier this year. Dowd was jailed for two years on Friday.
Andrew Eardley, 35, now of Deal, Kent, and IT manager Mark Vent, 31, of Grays, Essex, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud last year. Vent was jailed for 18 months and Eardley, a former Staffordshire school IT worker, for 18 months, suspended for two years.
Bruce Houlder QC, prosecuting, said: "This is a ground-breaking prosecution. It is the first prosecution for software piracy on this scale conducted in this country."
The piracy involved "cracking" the protection on software programmes, utilities and games to enable them to be copied and downloaded.
It was aimed at defrauding the legitimate copyright owners, who had spent millions of pounds developing the products.
International companies such as Microsoft, as well as small companies, fell victim to the scam. Some programmes had been stolen using insider help, before they were available commercially, he said.
Mr Houlder said: "They may see themselves as latter-day Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but in reality it is a cover for fraud."
The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit said DrinkorDie had been closed down as a result of the police raids in the US, Australia, Britain and other countries.
Detective Superintendent Mick Deats said: "This was a complex investigation which involved working with colleagues across the globe.
"Internet piracy is a growing problem, with organised crime now moving into this space and defrauding the individual, business and governments of millions of pounds."
Related news stories
‘Robin Hood’ gang facing jail for theft