Originally Published: Wednesday, 29 March 2000 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Mockery of Mattel

Mattel, the company that makes Barbie dolls, has been stirring up the Free Software Community. A typical American mega-corporation, Mattel also has a smaller division which markets Internet filtering software. Alone, this would be a black mark in the community. However, after two enterprising hackers broke the encryption on Cyper Patrol's filter list, events began to intensify. When the filtering list was reviewed, a large percentage of educational sites were improperly categorized and unnecessarily censored.

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Mattel, the company that makes Barbie dolls, has been stirring up the Free Software Community. A typical American mega-corporation, Mattel also has a smaller division which markets Internet filtering software. Alone, this would be a black mark in the community. However, after two enterprising hackers broke the encryption on Cyper Patrol's filter list, events began to intensify. When the filtering list was reviewed, a large percentage of educational sites were improperly categorized and unnecessarily censored.

Eddy Jansson from Sweden and Matt Skala of Canada were the primary authors of a utility called cphack and a walk-through The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) jumped in with an offer to defend the two crypto-analysts, and things began to move forward. Mattel then fought to extend their injunction against the mirror sites as well. Each time one mirror was taken off-line, another sprung to life. Free speech and free software advocates began to gear up for the coming battle.

Then unexpectedly, news broke that the two defendants had decided to settle with Mattel. They had granted Mattel copyright to their Cyper Patrol decryption program and documentation. The community was appalled, but somewhat understanding. After all, how many of us have the time, money, and resources to fight a legal battle against a huge corporation?

Now, a further twist has surfaced to complicate matters. Apparently, the source was released under the GNU General Public License (GPL). Once a program is distributed with the GPL, the copyright to that particular version can not be revoked. What does this do to the legality of the cphack source code? Is the GPL finally going to be tested in court? What are the ramifications of all this?

At this point, it is hard to say. Mattel would probably rather go after the legality of the original copyright "infringement" if they have to continue the litigation. Battling something like the GPL doesn't seem like a smart proposition, though Mattel hasn't shown much intelligence to date. If the GPL is tested in court, all the recent Linux companies would probably form some sort of defense fund, for if the GPL is legally invalidated it would be a severe blow to free software.

It is really distressing to see yet another company with such a blatant disregard to what seems right. Without their heavy-handed tactics, the original cphack program probably would have faded into obscurity. Now, regardless of whether it is legal to distribute, the genie has been released. If it is found illegal to distribute in the USA, someone sitting on a T-1 in Hong Kong will gleefully throw thousands of copies into the virtual wind.

Maybe someday, instead of claiming software superiority ("Cyber Patrol has sophisticated anti-hacker security." -- Cyber Patrol readme.txt), companies will actually do the right thing and fix their product. Instead of suing for silence, maybe Mattel should have hired these guys to fix their poor security.

Matt Michie is a Computer Science student living in New Mexico. He maintains a small web page at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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