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Free speech wins out in online anonymous criticism case

What happens when you’re upset about a business dealing with Massachusetts real estate developer Paul McMann? One anonymous critic put up a web site about the man, inviting other people to share their own stories. McMann wasn’t real pleased about this development, and he filed suit against the anonymous proprietor of the site and issued subpoenas to learn his (or her) true identity. An Arizona judge has just ruled that McMann is not able to use the compulsory discovery process to unmask his accuser unless he can show that his anonymous opponent actually committed a crime.HangZhou Night Net

The saga began back in Massachusetts, where McMann first filed suit agaist his detractor in early October. In his complaint, a copy of which was seen by Ars Technica, McMann told the court that he was being defamed. He specifically pointed to statements on the web site which said that he “turned lives upside down” and that people should “be afraid. Be very afraid” of McMann. He also claimed that the site was damaging his career in real estate; one potential lender and another potential business partner both told McMann that they were not interested in working with him after seeing the site.

At the end of the month, Judge Joseph Tauro tossed the case. He pointed out that the two statements cited by McMann could hardly be considered defamation because “these two statements are not provable as true or false, but rather are opinions.” The judge recognized that such cases could easily be used to identify critics, even if such critics had done nothing illegal. He also dismissed McMann’s claim that a photo of McMann published on the website was a violation of McMann’s personal copyright (the photo has apparently been replaced by the picture of a grinning jack-o’-lantern).

A week later, McMann refiled his suit in Arizona. The nonprofit group Public Citizen helped in the defense of the Arizona case, and they claim that McMann made no mention of the Massachusetts case. The state of Arizona was a strange choice, as McMann did not live or do business there and had no reason to think his anonymous critic did, either. It was apparently chosen because the paulmcmann.com site was registered with Domains by Proxy, which is based there. McMann’s attempts to learn John Doe’s identity from Domains by Proxy were unsuccessful; the company told him that he needed a court order.

On January 18, Judge Christopher Whitten sided with Judge Tauro and dismissed the case. Whitten ruled that “the Plaintiff must show that its claim would survive a Motion for Summary Judgment before being entitled to discover the identity of an anonymous speaker through any compulsory discovery process.” In other words, McMann had to provide solid, upfront evidence of illegal behavior.

“This victory is a win for the First Amendment right of free speech on the Internet,” said Public Citizen attorney Greg Beck. “The Court correctly recognized that people’s right to speak anonymously online should not be violated without good cause.”

The two decisions reinforce a set of recent rulings on Internet anonymity. At the end of 2005, for instance, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that anonymous bloggers should receive strong protection from exposure, and also ruled that a plaintiff would have to pass the “summary judgment” test before a subpoena would be authorized. But those who have been criticized find it hard to resist trying their luck in the courts, even though many such cases turn out to reveal nothing more interesting than the hourly rate charged by the plaintiff’s lawyer.

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Zune 2.0: The Empire strikes back

Microsoft hopes to launch the Zune in Europe before the end of 2007, the company told Reuters over the weekend, and hinted that there would be "more devices, more features" by that time. Acknowledging that Apple is a tough competitor in the music-player market, Microsoft’s marketing director Jason Reindorp said that the company was still happy with the Zune’s launch numbers and hopes to sell 1 million units by June.HangZhou Night Net

What’s in the future for the Zune? Here’s what we know from comments both public and off the record from Microsoft sources. Speaking at the Midem Music Expo in Cannes, France on Saturday, Microsoft’s media business chief Chris Stephenson also indicated that more versions of Zune are on the way. These will include a flash-based version of the player, which is currently expected to arrive in the fourth quarter of 2007. Sources say that the flash-based Zune will compete against the iPod nano and other diminutive flash-based players. Sources tell us that Microsoft also hopes to roll out a 12GB model if the NAND flash memory market can make the jump. The irony in this is that the next jump in NAND flash storage will likely be caused by the success of the iPod nano, which is already driving a significant portion of all NAND flash memory sales.

Stephenson also said that he envisions the proliferation of music "filling stations"—retail locations that already host WiFi hotspots—where Zune users could fill up on music over the air. He also said that the company is looking into more ways for users to "cache and download on the go." This all but confirms the company’s plans to fully enable WiFi in the way that many potential buyers have hoped—the ability to purchase music directly from the Zune. Also rumored is the possibility that Microsoft will enable full sharing of subscription music over WiFi, despite recent reports that users can’t even share all songs under Microsoft’s current three-play limit.

Other Zune rumors include the possibility that a pocket version of Internet Explorer will run on the next version of the Zune. Apple’s upcoming iPhone will allow web browsing via WiFi, as does the Sony PSP. If WiFi ends up becoming fully-enabled on the Zune for music purchasing and sharing purposes, it would only sense to enable web browsing via the Zune as well.

Reindorp said that the company was not trying to play catch-up with Apple in a market where the iPod is so entrenched, but attempting to give the Zune a name for itself. "We are very realistic, we have what is essentially a three-year plan to firmly and solidly get on the radar," he told Reuters. Microsoft seems to acknowledge its slow start with the Zune, but like the original Xbox, has big plans for sneaking the Zune in as a big player in the future.

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Parallels acknowledges SWsoft ownership

What do Parallels and enterprise virtualization software maker SWsoft have in common? More than we thought, it turns out. Parallels acknowledged today that the company is, in fact, owned by SWsoft, an acquisition that happened three years ago before most of us had ever even heard of Parallels. HangZhou Night Net

Does this public disclosure mean that anything will change for Parallels—seemingly the public favorite for virtualization software on the Mac these days? Marketing manager Ben Rudolph told Ars that the answer to that is a big fat "NO."

"Parallels will still have its own brand, site, and team," Rudolph told us. "We will simply be leveraging SWsoft’s substantial experience, talent and resources to make our products even better, and get the out the door even faster."

But why did Parallels and SWsoft keep the partnership a secret for so long?

"We have different skill sets and different approaches to virtualization, so we wanted to make sure that we maintained our own identities so we could stay focused," Rudolph said. "Now that we are moving to server virtualization, and SWsoft is expanding its virtualization management tool sets, there's a lot more overlap, so we wanted to be sure to let customers know that we're a 'one stop shop' for virtualization. We have their needs covered top to bottom, be it server or desktop, Windows, Linux or Mac, hardware virtualization, OS virtualization, or virtualization management."

SWsoft CEO Serguei Beloussov acknowledged to Fortune that the next version of Parallels, expected to be released this spring (we assume he is referring to the next "major beta" that we discussed with Rudolph at Macworld), will "by coincidence" make it easier to run OS X on non-Apple hardware.

This would be, of course, a move that Apple would not be thrilled about, but an inevitable (and tempting) development now that Macs share similar processor structure to their non-Mac bretheren. VMWare CEO Diane Greene told Fortune that they face the same temptations and challenges with Apple: "We were trying to do it the way they wanted to, but in hindsight we should have just gone ahead. I wonder what Steve Jobs is going to do, because there is so much pressure to run Mac OS on non-Macs."

All this being said, it seems that we (as consumers) have a lot of exciting things to look forward to in the world of virtualization on the Mac this year. Parallels seems intent on keepin' it real with the small-company feel, but for how long can they keep up that front while the software continues to gain momentum and, with it, an inevitably large user base?

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iLife and iWork ’07: Coming soon?

If (like most of us) you can tell time, you might have noticed that 2007 is almost three weeks old now and yet there's no sign of the eponymous personal or professional productivity suites from Apple. Expected to be unveiled (or at least announced) at Macworld Expo last week, it seems this year's upgrades to iLife and iWork aren't quite ready to come out of the oven.HangZhou Night Net

Then there's the impending release of Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard," and here the big news to come out of MWSF was—nothing? What gives, guys?

Remain calm, all is well, says Apple. While listening in on yesterday's earnings conference call, we unearthed two tidbits of news regarding both of these new ventures.

Numero uno: What's up with Leopard?

Continue to plan to ship Leopard in the Spring. We've got a lot of people working on it.

Numero dos: iLife. Give it to us.

We don't announce future products, but… stay tuned.

One might assume the pinpoint, up-to-the-second iLife release schedule mentioned above would also apply to its business-oriented cousin, iWork. There's some mild speculation that there may be features of iLife/iWork '07 that will in fact require Leopard, perhaps involving ties to Time Machine (you may want to hit mute before following that link) or other new technologies in the OS. This is entirely possible, of course, but if that's the case, it also means that the suites won't be available for a notable portion of 2007. Will there be a backlash if new and improved 2008 versions ship half a year after the 2007 models?

There are also half-hearted rumors abound of another Apple event later this month that's possibly timed to coincide with Microsoft's unveiling of the consumer versions of Vista at the end of January. The next significant milestone in Apple's 30th-anniversary year could be March 24, six years to the day of the release of Mac OS X 10.0. Or how about April 1, anniversary of the company's incorporation? Then there's this year's NAB conference, the scene of past Apple product introductions starting on April 14. Will we see the 2007 application/OS lineup before then?

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Zune on track for 1 million sales by July

The Zune may not have been noteworthy enough to make Amazon.com's Best of 2006 list, but Microsoft is reporting that the portable music player still had a fantastic December. Besides the device, Microsoft is reporting that Zune-related accessories and the Zune Marketplace also saw rapid growth during the last two months of 2006, but bear in mind that the Zune Marketplace launched on November 14, 2006. HangZhou Night Net

While the iPod still held the top spot in hard-drive based MP3 player sales, Microsoft claims that the Zune finished right behind Apple's uber popular device. A Microsoft spokesperson stressed that the Zune showed clear signs of success in its first six weeks.

"We're happy to report that we achieved our goal of establishing Zune as the clear number two seller this holiday behind an entrenched competitor. No other single device has been able to achieve these kinds of results in a six week launch period and we remain on track to exceed one million units in sales by June 30, 2007."

When the iPod launched, it sold 125,000 units in its first two months on the market. Taking the spokesperson's quote above literally, the Zune must have seen similar sales as compared to the original iPod, and over the next three years, Microsoft is sure that it can improve the Zune's position in the digital music device industry. Last December, Zune marketing director Jason Reindorp explained the company's game plan to Laptop Magazine.

"For us, the sales are right on track. They're exactly where we wanted them to be. This is week three, so it's kind of early for us to be thinking about share. The main thing for us is—and right from the beginning we were saying this—that this is a three-year plan. We're really thinking in terms of years and not weeks. From our retail partners we're hearing—and this is completely anecdotal—that they're seeing Zune drive what they think is incremental sales to the category right now."

The Zune is bound to improve within the next three years. Who knows, it could even dethrone the iPod at some point. By no means would that be easy, but with the right mixture of innovation and marketing, plus maybe a major mistake by Apple, could the Zune become number one? Aren't we seeing a similar trend right now with the Xbox 360 and PS3?

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adCenter Labs puts Microsoft’s latest advertising innovations on display

Recently, members from Microsoft's Research Center group and the adCenter group teamed together to create a series of new technologies directed toward online advertising. The team, which refers to itself as Microsoft adCenter Labs, is made up of over 100 researchers, developers, and analysts. The goal behind the adCenter Labs project is to lure in would-be advertisers to Microsoft while displaying ways that the company is innovating in the advertising space. HangZhou Night Net

Rather than tell potential advertisers what Microsoft could do for them, the company decided to create the adCenter Labs web site that provides interactive videos and demos of the group's latest creations—many of which are very cool.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of things to do at the adCenter Labs site. The first thing I tried was the Demographics Prediction, which takes a web site as input and writes back some information about its audience. How did Ars fare? Mostly male, frequented by those between the ages of 25 and 34. Microsoft.com, on the other hand, had a demographic of women over the age of 50; very interesting.

For advertisers, tools such as the Online Commercial Intention (OCI) detector can be quite fetching. The OCI can analyze a customer's search history and determine whether or not he is in the mood to shop. As a complement to OCI, Microsoft also has the Content Categorization Engine which offers possible categories along with a confidence rating for a given URL.

Some of Microsoft's most creative projects have come from the Microsoft Research Center, and the company has been putting more and more muster behind its advertising sales since the birth of the Live platform. Will we see any groundbreaking technologies come out of the adCenter Labs project? I think so. It's definitely a Microsoft group to keep an eye on over the next year.

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“Marketplace” glances at professional gaming

Whenever anyone in the media talks about games, and it's not to call us bloodthirsty killing machines or how we use games to train ourselves to run over our cats with cars, I'm happy. I perked up yesterday when I heard the host of "Marketplace" on my local NPR station start to talk about gaming. HangZhou Night Net

KAI RYSSDAL: Y'know how you read about people getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning to line up to buy the latest video game machine? And you say, man, what's the matter with them?

Okay, well, maybe not. This piece takes a look at professional gamers, and it seems like they actually have a sense for how big the potential market is for gaming leagues. I'm not all the way sold on professional gaming yet; the few things I've seen in this regard were way too geeky for widespread consumption. It really is a matter of upping the production values and getting some people in there who actually know the games to give good play-by-play. Thenmaybe professional gaming could work. Maybe. The Business of Sports analyst (best title ever) weighs in:

DERSE: Well, it's no longer guys sitting alone in the middle of the night. You have a number of different leagues already trying to sort of vie for status. But there are actually a couple out there that have been pretty interesting. You've got the World Series of Video Games, which I think yesterday announced a five-week series with CSTV, College Sports Television, to display its event. And then last week at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, Championship Gaming Series, which is a product of DirecTV, has announced that it's gonna be airing a series of team-vs-team competitions beginning in February. And it's very, very high-production value in a team format. And just listen to the way they promote it:

ANNOUNCER: In 2007, the 101 on DirecTV invites you to get… your… game… on!

Oh, dear sweet Lord. This is still an interesting read (or listen) if you want a look at how we're viewed by everyone else, and how the very idea of gaming professionally (or as a spectator sport) appears to those outside the thrall of gaming. Am I ready for jocks with joysticks? Probably not, but the more exposure our hobby gets, the better for everyone.

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Why Gears of War is holding up, and why derivative games can be classics

The problem with Gears of War is that unless you're playing it, it's easy to forget how good it is. You take a break for a while, and when you think about the game it's in terms of just another shooter, an exercise in "stop and pop" game play that may be pretty but doesn't do much to move the genre forward. You start to wonder what all the buzz was about. After all, no one gets this excited about a new Rainbow Six, do they? Of course not. Gears of War has to be overrated. HangZhou Night Net

Then you play it again, and everything that makes the game great comes back. I've actually had to put the disc back into the gaming collection and away from my 360. If I have it readily available I'll spend too many afternoons playing to the expense of other games. The weapons are balanced, the level design is top notch, and the game holds up over mult-hour gaming sessions. We now know that the chainsaw attack is often left to chance when two players rev it at the same time, and that can annoy some. I like it; the mood of the game is less formal than most multiplayer games. Much of the time when I'm playing multiplayer the game is almost secondary—it's more like we're hanging out and just happen to be shooting at each other with arrows that embed themselves in your skin and then explode. Of course, the fluid nature of the gameplay may annoy some, as referenced by Penny Arcade:

Animal appeal or no, he'll never be made to tolerate the fact that there are times where – when pressing their all-powerful A button – he can't actually determine what the result will be. I have heard it said that "it's a poor craftsman who blames his tools," but he's not trying to build an armoire. He's trying to navigate a simulated environment, and the indecision this creates obliterates his amusement.

I didn't give Gears of War my Game of the Year nod for 2006, and that move lead to much wailing and gnashing of… well, 360 controllers, honestly. I gave it to Brain Age, because that game made me multiply and have fun doing it; it turned trying to be smarter than my girlfriend into a meta-game. It sold everyone I know on a DS and it was all I saw in the hands of others outside the home for a good two months. I stand by my choice, but Slate has a great article on why they think Gears of War was the best game of last year. They may love Cliffy B a bit too much for my taste, but they make some strong points.

In addition to being a great marketer, Bleszinski is also terrific at
explaining how game design works. "In the grand scheme of videogame
real estate the 'A' button is Park Place," he wrote in a blog post
this past September. "The D-pad, Y, and back are Compton and Watts.
When we put together our control scheme for our games we say to the
player that the buttons that are prime real estate are the things that
the player will be doing most often while playing. Allow me to ask this
question then—how did [using the 'A' button for jumping] from the days
of Sonic and Mario creep into the shooter genre?"

Is it as simple as design? When I think back to things I would change about Gears of War I have to really get the brain going to come up with any sort of list. More levels? Oh, they just released some free ones. More game-types? Sure, okay. Clan play on Live? YES PLEASE. But all these things are additions to the core game, and I can't think of any real problems I have with the experience as it stands now. It's a game that just feels good to play, and it shows just how good you can make a game in an established genre when you take the time to refine every aspect of play. Gears even perfects co-op play: every bit of the game can be played with a friend at home, online, and you can add or drop the second player at any point of the game. This needs to be the new standard. Yes, I know how hard this is to do, but that doesn't take away from how important it is to gamers.

Gears of War has set the bar remarkably high for every other shooter that gets released in the next few years—this is the new high-water mark. We'll see what happens when Halo 3 is released on the 360, but right now we have one of the modern classics on the new systems, and as a game I like it even more as time goes on. Some people may disagree with my love affair with this game, but my question would then be: have you beaten it? Played it for a few hours online with good players? Mastered the control scheme? This is a game that looks limited from the outside, but once you're in the thing it's clear why we're all so impressed. This is a game you have to play to understand, and every fan of action games should make it a point to at least give it a few hours.

I can't wait to see what they do with the sequel.

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The Streamburst antipiracy plan: don’t use DRM

A UK startup has some interesting ideas about protecting video content: offer it as high-quality, unencrypted MPEG-4 files already formatted for various user devices. Instead of shackling users with artificial technological limitations on what they can do with their files, Streamburst hopes to secure content using a bit of personalization and a unique watermarking system, and they’ve already put their system to work selling the Ewan McGregor motorcycle trip documentary Long Way Round.HangZhou Night Net

Burn to DVD? Fine. Transfer video to any portable device? No problem. Don’t treat users like criminals? Check.

This approach to content is so different from the one taken by most Hollywood studios that we caught up with Róbert Bjarnason at his home in the UK to talk about his new company and to ask him one simple question: is he crazy?

Long way round

It’s become a mantra of sorts, not just on this site but among the content industry at large: piracy is a business model. To compete with it effectively, content companies have two choices. They can pour millions into robust new DRM schemes (see HD DVD, Blu-ray, and Windows Vista for examples) and then use the power of the law to hammer any users who are found violating their copyrights. That approach hasn’t been working so well. It’s slow and expensive; it generates the worst sort of PR; and it risks creating a new generation of pirates who discover that they have no alternative if they want to exercise their fair-use rights.

The other way to compete with piracy is by actually attempting to compete: lower prices, no DRM, and making it easier to pay for a high-quality legal file than to pirate it.

Bjarnason and his two partners are taking this approach with their new UK company, Streamburst. Last summer, Bjarnason was looking for something new. He’d been working on web sites for Long Way Round, the 2004 documentary about Ewan McGregor’s 19,000-mile trip across Europe, Asia, and North America on motorcycle. The show had been off the air for some time, and the producers had plans to repackage the episodes as mobile phone clips.

The project evolved as the team realized that laptops and iPods offered a much superior viewing experience and decided to offer the shows for all three devices. Bjarnason and two partners formed Streamburst to make the project a reality, and they coded the entire backend system using Ruby on Rails and standard open-source tools, all in under four months. Because they already had work from Long Way Round, the company was launched without any external funding—it was just the proverbial “guys in a garage.”

Building the storefront and encoding the video clips at different resolutions was straightforward stuff; the team’s real innovation came when they looked at the piracy problem and decided on a novel approach to it.

Don’t call it DRM

Bjarnason and Co. wanted the video files to be open and unencumbered, but they still needed to make it easy for for honest people to stay honest. The scheme they hit on does not resemble any traditional DRM. Bjarnason tells me it’s an “anti-piracy scheme,” not a restriction mechanism.

The first part of the scheme appends a five-second introduction to each purchased show. It’s simply a screen that shows the name of the person who paid for the download. It functions as a reminder that the file is intended for personal use, but it’s not heavy-handed, and it doesn’t restrict use. The video files are unencrypted MPEG-4 and can be burned to DVD for archiving or for watching on a home theater.

But can’t people simply strip their names out of the file? Sure they can, says Bjarnason, if they have an MPEG-4 editor. But it would take more time to do that (and to reencode the file) than it would to simply pirate a copy; Bjarnason says it’s “harder than downloading.” Besides, people who have just paid money to download a show shouldn’t be treated like criminals, and are less likely to be the ones seeding P2P networks around the world.

The second part of the scheme is a “watermark.” That is, it’s not technically a watermark in the usual sense of that term, but the encoding process does strip out a unique series of bits from the file. The missing information is a minuscule portion of the overall file that does not affect video quality, according to Bjarnason, but does allow the company to discover who purchased a particular file.

The goal is to make people more accountable for their actions without artificially restricting those actions. Because of its design, the watermark even survives most editing changes and format shifts; burning to DVD and then ripping back onto a computer doesn’t eliminate it.

Finally, the price is kept low. Although Streamburst doesn’t make these decisions, its first partnerships with McGregor’s production company have sold videos for £1.35 each—less than the £1.89 charge for individual music videos in the iTunes UK store.

Their first storefronts opened on December 18, selling episodes of shows like Long Way Round and Missing Face (a documentary which donates all profits to UNICEF). In their first month, they managed to sell more than 1,000 video clips. No, they won’t be giving iTunes execs sleepless nights for quite some time, but they aren’t trying to. Instead, the focus is on allowing independent producers to put out their work and get paid for it without shackling customers into restrictive DRM schemes.

I’ve seen the future… and it is Iceland

Streamburst is brand new—they first set up shop in September and only launched their corporate web site this week—but they already have plans to expand. Bjarnason hails from Iceland, and though he works in the UK, he’d love to get involved with the film industry in his native country. The Streamburst system is unlikely to be adopted by major Hollywood and European studios in the near term, so Bjarnason next hopes to turn to Iceland’s indie film community.

The team has also developed a technique for distributing the files via BitTorrent without losing the customized watermark; the video comes bundled inside a activation program that encodes the username and watermark into the file when it’s purchased. But until Streamburst stores get a critical mass of users, it’s actually more efficient to distribute files through the web. Should traffic pick up, the team already has a new distribution system ready to go.

Will a system that relies on a Reagenesque “trust, but verify” approach to protecting content gain any traction in a famously paranoid industry? Here’s hoping. DRM doesn’t stop piracy anyway, so it’s not impossible to imagine some future day in which the lion will lay down with the lamb, and studios will stop making criminals of those who want to rip a DVD to their iPod to get them through a long commute.

Unfortunately, as Ken recently noted, DRM isn’t really about piracy at all, but more about making users pay a second time for the “privilege” of format-shifting their purchased content. Even Apple loves the current regime. Companies that “think different”—like Streamburst—face a tough battle, but it’s one worth fighting, and the company stands a decent chance of carving out a niche in the independent video market. Here’s hoping for more such innovative thinking in 2007.

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Old dye as new media storage

Prussian blue (PB) is one of the oldest known synthetic chemicals. It is used as a dye in paints and was a key component of blueprints. New research shows that a chemical derivative of PB can be magnetized by hitting it with light, and, more importantly, this magnetization can be turned off with the application of heat. By having two distinct states, a material such as this PB derivative could be used to store data, with the magnetized state equating to a one, and a nonmagnetized state being a zero.HangZhou Night Net

Long-term storage has been one of the most important components throughout the history of modern computing. Modern hard drives have little in common with the earliest versions. The first hard drive was built by IBM in 1956. Used in the IBM 350, it consisted of 50 24-inch diameter plates with 100 recording surfaces, with each surface having 100 tracks. The total amount of memory on these drives was about 5MB; they weighed over a ton and were available for lease from IBM for a meager $3,200 per month. A single modern hard drive can hold on the order of 750GB of data, and is readily available for a few hundred dollars.

Prussian blue, on the other hand is much older, having been developed by the German colormaker Diesbach around 1704 or 1705. When PB was synthesized, Diesbach was actually trying to create a red dye. In the process of trying to create a deep red, he created the deep blue we know today as Prussian blue (fun fact: PB is RGB value [0, 49, 83] and hex triplet #003153), which was the first synthetic dye. It is the structure of PB that makes it interesting to modern science; its chemical formula is Fe7(CN)18(H2O)x, where 14 < x < 16, but it is a chemical derivative of this compound that is piquing the interest of researchers.

A cobalt rubidium Prussian blue derivative compound has been found to be capable of being magnetized by a pulse of light and remaining in this altered state until heated. With this compound having two stable states, it could be perfect for a new form of information storage. It was found that when this material was irradiated with red light, an electron transfer would take place changing the oxidation state of cobalt from +III to +II, and the iron oxidation state from +II to +III. This electron transfer was accompanied by a slight change in the structure of the material. The Co-N-C linkage would change from a bent configuration to a straight configuration; the charge transfer and change in spin on the various molecules allows the material to transition from a nonmagnetic to a magnetic state. The charge transfer—and accompanying structural change—can be undone with the simple addition of heat to the system, returning the material to its starting configuration.

Since one of the two possible states of this material is magnetic, coupled with the fact that this change is easily reversible and stable, it has the potential to be used as a near-perfect analogue to modern binary memory storage devices. While this material holds promise, it is not ready for prime time, or daytime for that matter; the switching process is currently carried out at -150° C. While only a first step, materials of this type could one day be developed to create information storage systems that can store data at the atomic level, allowing far more information to be packed into the same area used in modern components.

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Two hip-hop producers in trouble for violating copyrights

The line between “theft” and “inspiration” can be a fine one in the arts. To see just how confusing it still is to many people, consider the recent UK dustup over an allegation that novelist Ian McEwan plagiarized portions of Atonement from a mid-century nursing memoir—even though McEwan mentioned the memoir as a research source and used no verbatim passages from that work. Other novelists leapt to his defense, aghast that “research” had somehow become “theft.” But what happens when the borrowing isn’t quite as subtle? Two US hip-hop controversies make it clear that the debate over what constitutes illegal copying is still a live one.HangZhou Night Net

First up: DJ Drama, who found himself in a bit of real drama this week after cops raided his office and threw him in jail. The police were acting on a tip from the RIAA, which is the tiniest bit unhappy about DJ Drama’s “Gangsta Grillz” mixtape albums. Mr. Drama (aka Tyree Simmons) also had 81,000 discs confiscated, along with four vehicles and his recording gear, according to the New York Times.

The RIAA isn’t pleased with “Gangsta Grillz,” which are rap compilations that usually contain unlicensed music. The albums are widely seen as promotional tools by the rappers who willingly participate, but formal permission to use the tracks is not obtained from the record labels who own the rights to them. The mixtape scene has thrived for years without arrests, so the sudden bust of a high-profile figure came as something of a shock.

It’s not clear that the individual record labels were consulted about whether they in fact wanted DJ Drama thrown in jail; his albums provide excellent publicity for featured artists and are still available on iTunes. Drama also has a recording deal with Atlantic, which is planning to release a “Gangsta Grillz” record of its own. He now faces a felony racketeering indictment under the US RICO statute.

Just “do it”

He’s not the only one in trouble over unlicensed copying. Superstar producer Timbaland has been accused of ripping off a Finnish 4-track Amiga .MOD demo for use on Nelly Furtado’s recent song “Do it.”

The track in question is called “Acidjazzed Evening,” and it’s a product of Janne Suni, who entered in the Assembly 2000 “demoscene” contest held in Helsinki. The track was a catchy lo-fi tune that was subsequently (and with permission) recreated on a Commodore 64 in 2002. It then showed up—in apparently identical form—on the new Furtado song (see a video clip of the two songs).

Though “Acidjazzed Evening” had been freely distributed, Suni had never given up his copyright to the piece and claims that he was never contacted by Timbaland or anyone else over rights to the song. Suni has retained the services of a law firm, though he has given no details on what he plans to do; a lawsuit would certianly be expected if behind-the-scenes negotiation fails to secure a deal.

These cases aren’t truly comparable to McEwan’s, of course. Though he borrowed historical detail and specific incidents from his sources, McEwan transformed them into something new, using his own words and characters. Both music producers are accused of wholesale copying, a very different thing from the “she stole my melody line” lawsuits that occasionally pop up in the music world.

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Belgian newspapers target Yahoo after forcing Google to bend on linking

Long known for making the best beer in the world, Belgium has also become known for applying its copyright laws to news aggregators that summarize and link to the country’s newspapers. The latest tiff comes courtesy of Yahoo and Copiepresse, Belgium’s copyright enforcement group.HangZhou Night Net

Yahoo, like other news aggregators, publishes summaries and links to news articles all over the Internet. This isn’t a problem in most places, but Belgian publishers aren’t fans of the practice. Bernard Magrez, a lawyer for the Belgian copyright watchdog, has accused Yahoo of publishing articles without authorization. As a result, Copiepresse has sent a "cease and desist" letter to Yahoo, requesting that they stop linking to articles on the newspapers’ websites.

If you’re thinking that this sounds familiar, you’re correct. Google went through the same thing with Copiepresse last year. The Belgian newspapers argued that Google’s indexing of their sites constituted copyright infringement. A Belgian court agreed, ordering the search engine to remove the content from Google News and its search index while fining it €1.3 million for each day of noncompliance. Google is appealing the court’s ruling, and a decision may be issued some time this month.

Yahoo released a statement saying that it "respects the copyright of content owners" and will "respond in an appropriate manner" to Copiepresse’s complaints.

It’s difficult to see how the Belgian newspapers will benefit by having their links and content summaries stripped from all the major search engines.Easily-found external links drive traffic to web sites, which most site operators agree is a good thing. Forcing search engines to stop indexing and linking their content may give the newspapers more control over how their content is displayed and used, but that short-term benefit is outweighed by the prospect of lower site traffic and increasing irrelevance on the Internet.

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Google Checkout sees poor customer satisfaction

Google Checkout has had a modest start since its launch in June of 2006, but it has a long way to go before overtaking—or even competing—with PayPal, according to a new report by investment firm J.P. Morgan Securities. J.P. Morgan surveyed approximately 1,100 customers about their online shopping habits and found that Google Checkout had a relatively quick market penetration of six percent despite having only been open for eight months. However, the company appears to be having some problems with customer satisfaction that could hold Checkout back from growing its market share. HangZhou Night Net

Checkout’s quick penetration was attributed to Google’s aggressive promotion and discounts. Checkout’s users also seem to fit the typical early-adopter profile: users skew heavily toward young (57 percent under the age of 35), male (nearly twice as many male users as female users), and affluent, with incomes higher than $75,000 per year (34.1 percent). PayPal, being more mainstream than Google Checkout, had much more modest numbers—36 percent under the age of 35, close to equal men and women (although PayPal still skews slightly toward male users), and 25.4 percent with incomes over $75,000 per year.

However, Google seems to be failing to impress its early-adopting audience. A mere 18.8 percent reported having a "good" or "very good" experience with Google Checkout, with the remaining 81.2 percent indicated a fair to poor experience. Some users have reported anecdotally that Google Checkout mistakenly cancelled sales without warning or that the checkout process took too long. Compared to PayPal’s 44.2 percent reporting good experiences, Google appears to have some major improvements to make to the overall user experience before being able to deal some serious blows to PayPal’s market share.

Google is also having some problems with brand awareness, although much of that can be attributed to the product’s newness. J.P. Morgan says that "more than 56 percent of the respondents in our survey reported having no familiarity with Google Checkout." Additionally, only 4.6 percent of respondents had used both services, and just under one percent had only used Google Checkout—30.1 percent had only used PayPal. This is where Google’s aggressive promotions will come in handy again throughout 2007, starting off with yesterday’s inclusion of "$10 to spend" on the company’s home page for anyone who uses Google Checkout. Managing Editor Eric Bangeman acknowledges that he was inspired to buy new skivvies from Jockey.com because of Google Checkout’s recent promos.

Will Google Checkout ever be able to compete with PayPal? It’s possible, if Google promotes it hard and corrects the initial problems that its customers have complained about. However, it’s not likely that both Google and PayPal will be able to co-exist happily and share the same customers—part of the reason why PayPal has such a large customer base is because the users seem to like having one place to do all of their online transactions with various people and businesses, not two or three.

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