The maker of a popular software program aimed at protecting children from questionable websites has settled out of court with a Canadian student who not only deciphered the program but let the world in on the list of banned sites encrypted in the software.
Toy-maker giant Mattel believes that University of Victoria student Matthew Skala and his Swedish partner Eddy Jansson violated United States copyright laws after reverse-engineering the software, Cyber Patrol, and posting a new software program that could list, for the user, all the URLs the company wanted to keep secret.
But Mr Skala claimed the practice of reverse engineering does not violate copyright. "I fully expected them to modify their software," said the masters student, comparing the practice with a business taking apart a competitor's work to build a better product.
But after Mattel filed a suit in both Boston and Vancouver, Mr Skala agreed to a settlement banning him from any more reverse engineering of Cyber Patrol and agreed to hand over an essay that told how he and Mr Jansson came to see what the company had wanted to keep secret.
Mr Skala said he wanted to find out what the product actually blocked. The sites he found led him to believe that Cyber Patrol is not simply filtering out pornography and violence. He and his partner discovered the software, which reportedly has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, listed sites critical of Cyber Patrol and Mattel, a site for the city of Hiroshima and a newsgroup dedicated to the writings of Philip K. Dick. The website for the American leftwing magazine Mother Jones, student organisations at Carnegie Mellon University, and even a newsgroup related to chess were also among the 80,000 blocked sites.
"If teachers, librarians, employers and parents are considering buying this kind of software, they have a right to know what they're getting," Mr Skala wrote on his webpage.
David Jones, a professor at Mc-Master University in Hamilton, Ontario, and the president of Electronic Frontier Canada, which advocates free speech on the internet, says corporations such as Mattel, in reacting litigiously, have created a "David and Goliath" situation. Unfortunately, Goliath continues to win, he said, because of the high costs of battling in court.