Babes in Toyland

Two hackers piss off Mattel and spawn an Internet legal imbroglio

Early this year, a self-taught software programmer in Sweden named Eddy Jansson e-mailed a computer science grad student in Canada named Matthew Skala. Jansson suggested that the two men, who ran in the same techie cybercircles, combine their efforts to strike a blow for free speech on the Internet.

There was no way of knowing, of course, that Jansson's electronic missive would eventually spawn a massive legal fight stretching across international borders, further muddying the already opaque waters of Internet law and sucking in dozens of unwitting Web denizens.

Jansson had been trying to crack the codes of Cyber Patrol, a Web filter that is one of the most sophisticated and popular pieces of filtering software on the market.

Since its release in 1995, Cyber Patrol -- marketed by Microsystems Inc. and mighty toy manufacturer Mattel Inc. -- has gained currency among computer users, from cautious parents to public librarians, who wish to block out supposedly offensive Web sites. Given its success, the filter has also become a favorite target for Internet free speech agitators, who argue that Cyber Patrol's inexplicable process of blocking sites from a user's computer runs counter to the Web's freewheeling ethos.

Though magazines like Time and PC World have praised Cyber Patrol for taming the wild, wild World Wide Web for parents and teachers, free speech activists say the program breaches First Amendment rights, and strangles the dissemination of information -- especially since some public libraries and universities have started installing Cyber Patrol on their computers.

Over the past few years, cyberactivists have assailed the program by posting partial Web lists of blocked Cyber Patrol sites. But Jansson wanted to go further by taking the Cyber Patrol program completely apart. When the math got too hard for Jansson to figure out on his own, he enlisted Skala's help. By fiddling with algorithms and breaking out their handy software hex viewers and disassemblers, the international duo were eventually able to break the program.

Jansson and Skala then wrote their own counter-Cyber Patrol program. After six weeks of collaboration, they completed something they called "cp4break," which consisted of three computer programs and an essay titled "The Breaking of Cyber Patrol®."

The package was a political statement for Jansson and Skala, who call Internet filtering software "censorware." The programs allowed Cyber Patrol users to disable the filter and access a comprehensive list of the Web sites and IP addresses that Cyber Patrol blocks. The two hoped their efforts would illustrate the faults of censorware -- that in the process of restricting explicit material, the programs also block out innocuous information on topics like feminism or queer issues.

The tech-savvy twosome posted their hack package on their personal Web sites, and sent out a press release touting their accomplishments. Word soon circulated in techie chat rooms and newsgroups that Cyber Patrol had been hacked. Jansson and Skala were congratulated for making a grand anti-censorware statement.

But by unraveling Cyber Patrol, Jansson and Skala also launched a vexing legal mess that shows no signs of ending soon. Given the silent and subtle unfurling of the Internet's tentacles into all parts of the world, U.S. law has been hard-pressed to keep up with rapidly emerging technology. The Cyber Patrol case has served to further unsettle the legal foundations.

When Mattel caught wind of "cp4break," the corporate giant had no intention of tolerating such an unabashed assault on its product. Crying copyright infringement, Mattel filed suit against the two cyberoutlaws in a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, Microsystem's home state. Attorneys for Mattel argued that by reverse-engineering the program, Jansson and Skala had devalued the company's product and violated its copyright.

Right off the bat, it was unclear whether reverse engineering is, in and of itself, a copyright violation, since the hackers did not sell the code, but merely used it to write programs that they then gave away. It was also unclear whether Mattel could even sue the two men in the U.S. court, since they both live out of the country, and did all of the reverse engineering beyond U.S. borders.

Mattel argued that by downloading Cyber Patrol onto their computers, the hackers had effectively accepted a licensing agreement that forbids reverse engineering (though there are heated debates about the power of licensing agreements, too). Mattel also contended that once the hack program made its way to the U.S. via the Internet, Jansson and Skala became subject to this country's copyright laws.

But answers to those overarching questions -- which could help sort out some of the confusion surrounding copyrights and the Web -- were not to come from Mattel's suit.

On March 24, Jansson and Skala settled the case with Mattel, saying their point had already been made. In the settlement, the two men agreed to sell the rights to their programs to Mattel for one Canadian dollar (to make the transfer of copyrights legally stick). Jansson and Skala also agreed to an injunction that prevents them, or anyone "in active concert or participation" with them, from ever distributing the anti-Cyber Patrol programs.

But the settlement simply created even more legal questions.

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