August 19, 2005

Another Online “Mugging” Report [9:08 am]

From New Scientist: Computer characters mugged in virtual crime spree [pdf] [via Slashdot]

A man has been arrested in Japan on suspicion carrying out a virtual mugging spree by using software “bots” to beat up and rob characters in the online computer game Lineage II. The stolen virtual possessions were then exchanged for real cash.

The Chinese exchange student was arrested by police in Kagawa prefecture, southern Japan, the Mainichi Daily News reports.

Several players had their characters beaten and robbed of valuable virtual objects, which could have included the Earring of Wisdom or the Shield of Nightmare. The items were then fenced through a Japanese auction website, according to NCsoft, which makes Lineage II. The assailant was a character controlled by a software bot, rather than a human player, making it unbeatable.

Ren Reynolds, a UK-based computer games consultant and an editor of the gaming research site Terra Nova, says the case highlights the problem of bots in virtual worlds.

See earlier A Problem Yet To Be Faced

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Google Maps a Terror Threat? [8:54 am]

And, if not, how to draw the appropriate line? Lawmakers Fear Software Use for Terror [pdf]

Two members of the Dutch parliament have questioned whether a free mapping program from Google Inc. may help would-be terrorists by providing aerial photos of potential targets.

Google Earth, launched this year, uses overlapping satellite photos to simulate the experience of flying from the stratosphere down to any spot on earth.

[...] Justice Ministry spokesman Wibbe Alkema said Wednesday the government was still crafting its response.

Google spokeswoman Catherine Betts said benefits of the software “far outweigh any negatives from potential abuse.”

“Google Earth is built from information that is already available from both commercial and public sources,” she said. “The same information is available to anyone who flies over or drives by a piece of property.”

Similar fears in Australia were quelled after officials said they doubted the program posed any special threat to national safety.

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Struck a Nerve! [8:40 am]

The painful evolution of the movie business model continues: Movie Slump Stirs Tensions in Hollywood

The tension in Hollywood over declining box-office receipts heated up on Thursday as the head of the trade organization for movie theaters accused the chairman of the Walt Disney Company, Robert A. Iger, of leveling a “death threat” against his industry.

The trade official, John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, was responding to a statement by Mr. Iger to Wall Street analysts this month that movie studios need to accommodate changing consumer demand by releasing films simultaneously in theaters and on DVD.

“Simultaneous release would seriously damage the theater industry,” Mr. Fithian said in an interview, referring to the prospect as a “death threat to our industry.”

“It would substantially weaken the marketing potential of the theatrical release for the ancillary markets,” he added, “and it would devalue Hollywood movies.”

LATimes’ Theater Owners Fired Up Over Iger’s Comments [pdf]

From Fithian’s remarks from the National Association of Theatre Owners WWW site.

Iger considers the slowdown in theatre box office and DVD growth a ‘wake-up call’ for the industry. I’m not sure who was asleep, but it wasn’t the exhibition industry. Here’s what we know about 2005 — the movies are not as good. They’re not terrible. They’re just not as good. And so the industry has experienced a temporary drop-off compared to 2004 — the biggest box office year in movie history.

[...] DVDs that sell well benefit enormously from the advertising platform and national conversation generated by theatrical release. Does it really make good business sense to plunder that $25-billion-plus worldwide theatrical window without a very solid assurance that even more DVD sales will make up for the lost theatrical revenues? And if you answer that question based on number-crunching in your home entertainment division, are you really willing to bet the farm on the proposition that consumers will rush to watch even more movies at home after you’ve whacked the advertising platform of theatrical release? And have your numbercrunchers accounted for the possibility that consumers have basically bought their DVD libraries, and will hereafter be increasingly conservative about their purchases?

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A Look At the Mob-Piracy Connection [8:35 am]

Mob Pirates: Menace or Myth?

In the latest public relations strike in the war on copyright infringement, the music and film industries are sowing fears that content piracy, like drug trafficking before it, is being taken over by organized crime syndicates.

The problem is that the evidence — so far, at least — is lacking.

[...] In fact, links between large gangs and piracy are well-documented in China and Russia, along with other developing countries. But U.S. cases invariably target more run-of-the-mill outlaws, like download site operators and theater camcorder pirates.

Asked to cite actual U.S. convictions involving organized crime, the RIAA and MPAA instead presented a handful of pending piracy cases against warez networks, commercial replicators, a few members of street gangs and a smattering of individual drug dealers — but no John Gotti or Tony Soprano.

“It’s not organized crime families, as in ‘the mob,’” admits Bradley Buckles, head of the RIAA’s anti-piracy unit and former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “But large groups engaged in organized criminal activity are involved.”

[...] To doubters, MPAA’s Hausman and the Los Angeles district attorney’s office say stay tuned: Several large-scale, for-profit piracy operations are currently under investigation. “There are a number of pending piracy cases I can’t talk about,” says Jeff McGrath, district attorney at the high-tech crimes unit in Los Angeles.

[...] For now, no convictions have been made, and neither the industry associations nor police are able to provide convincing detail, something they attribute to the early stage of their investigations.

“Building cases against groups who run burner labs can be tricky, because there are often not a lot of pirated discs on hand at one time,” Hausman says. “It’s a just-in-time business.”

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CNet Roundup On Digital Music Moves [8:31 am]

Tech hears the music

Yahoo brings its low-priced subscription service to a wider audience. Sony and Samsung are hot for new MP3 players, while Nokia says no to iTunes.

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Intel’s Muni Wi-Fi Program [8:30 am]

Co-opting a trend? Or promoting it? — Cities join Intel’s Wi-Fi program

Intel and several corporate partners launched a program on Thursday aimed at helping cities use wireless networks to better serve their citizens–and perhaps make a little cash on the side.

Thirteen cities are currently participating in the initiative, called “Digital Communities.” Its goal is to give cities technical resources and discounts to help them establish or build out their broadband wireless infrastructure so they can better connect with police and fire personnel as well as with public-works employees such as meter readers and building inspectors.

The program also educates city leaders on ways they can use their wireless network as a commercial service, by selling access to the system and by providing wireless services to consumers.

Related: Free WiFi Trend Continues

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FCC Critique [8:27 am]

What would Joe Consumer say?

In writing for the majority [in Brand X], Justice Clarence Thomas offered a tortured reading of the law (PDF here) to reverse the existing arrangement governing the relationship between cable companies and ISPs.

So much for the idea of a common carrier–a concept that had been on the books since the Communications Act of 1934 that led to the creation of the FCC. But that’s what you get from darned activist judges. (Oops, Thomas can’t be an activist. Can he? Never mind.)

[...] This current FCC has consistently argued that the old rules worked against innovation and caused higher prices. We’re being told the changes will act as a business incentive that leads to lower prices. My favorite comment was a particularly sunny prediction from one James C. Smith, who is a senior vice president at SBC Communications.

“Discarding decades-old requirements and regulatory assumptions that are out of sync with today’s competitive broadband marketplace will also spur more innovative products and services for consumers,” Smith said in a statement.

I do hope he proves me wrong, but it’s hard to understand how any of this will foster competition. Independent Internet service providers, which rely on other companies’ infrastructures to provide services to customers, are already struggling. And after the expiration of a one-year transitional period, during which the phone companies still must offer network access to ISPs, all bets are off. My hunch is that the big guys will simply tell their former lease customers to take a hike–or pay through the nose to re-sign.

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Mossberg on Rent vs. Own Digital Music [8:22 am]

Rent vs. Own [pdf]

This rental model has attracted a solid audience, but it is nowhere near as popular as iTunes — not even close. That may be because the rental model is far more complicated and restrictive than iTunes, and has several big downsides.

The biggest problem with renting is that if you stop paying your subscription, even for one month, all the songs you’ve ever downloaded — going back years — will become inert and unplayable. Rental song files are rigged with computer code that requires a monthly digital confirmation the renter is continuing to pay. Without that, the song files die.

An iTunes user could pay $500 to acquire 500 individual songs (buying whole albums is somewhat cheaper) over two years, and those songs are always hers and will always play. By contrast, a Yahoo user might download 500 rental songs over two years for just $120 in subscription fees, but the songs will become unplayable unless she pays hundreds or thousands more in subscription fees over many years, even if the fees rise.

[...] Another huge downside of the rental services is that the songs they rent — and even the ones they sell outright for the extra 79 cents — cannot be played on the world’s best and most popular portable player: Apple’s iPod. That’s because the rental-service songs are encoded in a format owned by Microsoft, Apple’s rival, and Microsoft software is required to play them on a portable player. Apple won’t build the necessary Microsoft compatibility into the iPod.

So rental users are stuck with inferior portable players that don’t sell well and thus don’t attract the huge number of accessories available for the iPod.

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Someone Going To Fight An RIAA Suit [8:08 am]

Taking on record companies [pdf] [via TechDirt]

Record companies have filed about 13,300 similar federal lawsuits against Internet users across the country since September 2003. Nearly 3,000 of those lawsuits have been settled. The offending music traders have agreed to pay an average of $4,000 to $5,000 and promised not to illegally download copyrighted songs anymore.

None of the cases has gone to trial.

That may change. And it may change with a soccer mom [Patricia Santangelo] who said she would rather pay a lawyer’s fees than give in to what she calls intimidation tactics by the record companies to get her to settle.

“I am still nervous about the whole thing,” she said. “I just got so aggravated about how threatening they were.”

The risk she is taking is that, if she loses, she may wind up paying much more than the $7,500 the record companies initially wanted from her to settle the case.

[...] Santangelo’s lawyer, Morlan Ty Rogers, who works in New York City and grew up in Sleepy Hollow and Ossining, said no one has challenged the “boilerplate” language of the lawsuits, adding that the record companies don’t have enough evidence to bring their claims to court.

“Many of these lawsuits have been brought against people who are simply the names on the Internet account,” Rogers said. He said that’s not good enough to sustain a lawsuit. The companies have sued unsuspecting mothers, fathers, grandparents — people who have only grudgingly made the switch from vinyl albums to compact discs.

“It’s really surprising” no one has attacked the record companies’ basis for the lawsuits, he said, “because the record companies’ claims are actually very weak.”

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