Industrial Espionage in US Meets PRC Nannyware

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/14/2009 10:27:00 AM
A few days ago, I mentioned in passing that China's attempt to install mandatory censorship software into the hardware of Western PC makers could be construed as a trade barrier as it has been found to foul up expected functionalities. Little did I know that a related trade dispute was already brewing. Solid Oak Software of California is now claiming that it is "99.9%" certain that parts of its CyberSitter web-filtering software have been stolen by the designers of China's so-called "Green Dam" nannyware. Naturally, the Chinese developers are vehemently denying this claim.

And here comes the fun part: Solid Oak is enlisting the help of Uncle Sam in preventing the likes of Dell and Compaq from installing this allegedly pirated software. Yes! A nice trade conflict is potentially brewing that may once again force the US and China to butt heads in the merciless arena known as world trade. However, the Wall Street Journal notes below that the American concern is the underdog since foreseeable remedies are limited. In particular, US copyright law may not be violated by computers being sold outside of American shores:
A California company alleged that an Internet-filtering program being pushed by the Chinese government contains stolen portions of the company's software. The company, Solid Oak Software Inc., said it will try to stop PC makers from shipping computers with the software.

Solid Oak said Friday that it found pieces of its CyberSitter filtering software in the Chinese program, including a list of terms to be blocked, instructions for updating the software, and an old news bulletin promoting CyberSitter. Researchers at the University of Michigan who have been studying the Chinese program also said they found components of CyberSitter, including the blacklist of terms...

The allegations come as PC makers such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are sorting through a mandate by the Chinese government requiring that all PCs sold in China as of July come with the filtering software. Representatives of the two big U.S. companies said they are working with trade associations to monitor new developments related to the Chinese software.

The Chinese software, whose name translates to "Green Dam-Youth Escort," is intended to help parents block access to pornography and other Internet content inappropriate for children, according to Jinhui. Free speech advocates have been examining the program's code because they are concerned that it also could be used to block political Web sites.

Solid Oak's president, Brian Milburn, said he will seek an injunction preventing U.S. companies from shipping computers with the Chinese software. Mr. Milburn said Solid Oak received an anonymous email Friday stating that Green Dam may contain parts of his company's code...Similarities they found include a list of CyberSitter serial numbers and an update that makes the software compatible with an old version of CyberSitter, he said. "I am 99.99% certain that if not the entire program at least a good proportion of it is stolen CyberSitter code," says Mr. Milburn.

Some lawyers said that because the software will only be sold in China, Solid Oak faces an uphill legal battle, even if it targets U.S. companies. "It's not a violation of U.S. copyright" law if the computers are only sold in China, said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard University Law School. "The question would have to be resolved in a Chinese court under Chinese law..."

The allegation by Solid Oak could add to the outcry over the lack of transparency in the Chinese government's decision to choose this particular program to implement its filtering requirement.
I find using the words "China" and "transparency" in the same sentence troublesome. Initially, I thought that Solid Oak could invoke trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS). However, the case of a minor software company is not likely to merit a US filing against China at the WTO. In any event, Solid Oak may not want to gain attention as the company being pirated here since Chinese web surfers have found whatever bilge the apparatchiks are foisting on them to be exceedingly intrusive. Sometimes it's better to let things slide despite being we forgive those who sin against us.