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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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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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