Cybersitter suit accuses China, PC makers of software piracy

Lawsuit alleges that Sony, Toshiba, Lenovo, and others distributed millions of copies of pirated Web filtering software at the behest of the Chinese government.

A California company filed a software piracy lawsuit on Tuesday against the Chinese government, two Chinese software developers, and seven PC manufacturers alleging that they illegally copied code from its Web content filtering program and distributed that code as part of a censorship effort sponsored by the Chinese government .

Santa Barbara, California-based Solid Oak Software, which sells the Cybersitter program, filed the $2.2 billion civil action in federal court in Los Angeles.

Green Dam allows users to specify categories of sites to block.
This screen shot shows the Green Dam content filtering software distributed in China. University of Michigan

In addition to the People's Republic of China, the named defendants are PC makers Sony and Toshiba of Japan; Lenovo, Acer, AsusteK Computer, and BenQ of Taiwan; and Haier Group of China, as well as Chinese software makers Zhengzhou Jinhui Computer System Engineering and Beijing Dazheng Human Language Technology Academy.

Asked to comment on the lawsuit, a Lenovo spokeswoman said: "We aren't able to comment about pending litigation." All the other defendants either did not immediately return calls and e-mails seeking comment or could not be reached on Tuesday.

The lawsuit alleges copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, unfair competition, and conspiracy. It claims that the Chinese makers of the Green Dam Youth Escort software illegally copied more than 3,000 lines of code from the Cybersitter program and that more than 56 million copies of Green Dam were distributed, even after allegations of copyright were made public.

Last June, China's government began requiring that all PCs sold in the country be shipped with the Green Dam software, ostensibly to protect young people from pornography. Human rights activists complained the mandate was really an expansion of the government's censorship activities.

A group of University of Michigan researchers analyzed Green Dam , developed by Dazheng, and concluded that it had security vulnerabilities and that it exposes the computer to remote attack.

Those researchers found that Green Dam copied the Cybersitter code, including proprietary filters and even files that were unnecessary to the function of the program but were instead notices for Cybersitter customers, Greg Fayer, a lawyer for Solid Oak, said in an interview.

Following criticism about the software, the Chinese government delayed implementation of the policy and then diluted it, requiring the use of Green Dam on computers only in schools and at Internet cafes. However, PC makers continued to distribute the software after that, the lawsuit alleges.

"We tried to make contact with China and didn't get very far. So, basically, we've gotten no response," Fayer said. "The most valuable asset this country has, and certainly our most valuable export, is our ingenuity, creativity and ideas--what lawyers would call 'intellectual property'--and we have to value that and make sure it's protected."

The lawsuit alleges that the Chinese government initially paid Jinhui and Dazheng about $6.9 million for a one-year license to distribute the Green Dam program and then charged "substantial" license fees to computer manufacturers and others to use it, while also offering it for free download from the Internet.

Solid Oak also claims in the suit that there have been numerous unlawful attempts to gain access to its servers originating from within China and that its employees were targeted with e-mails containing a Trojan that was designed to steal data.

Updated 4:45 p.m. PST with no comment from Lenovo.

 

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