August 29, 2006

SpiralFrog Arises [5:12 pm]

Will ad revenue be enough to support this approach? Universal Backs Free Music Rival to iTunes

A new online music company said today that it would make a huge catalog of songs from the world’s largest record company, the Universal Music Group, available for consumers to download free.

The company, called SpiralFrog, said its intention was to wean music fans, especially young people, away from illegal downloads and pirate music sites by offering a legitimate source that is supported by advertising instead of download fees.

Of course, there’s never a free lunch:

For consumers, SpiralFrog’s free downloads will come with many more strings attached than Apple’s paid ones do. Users of SpiralFrog will have to sit through advertisements, and will be prevented by special software from making copies of the songs they download or from sharing them with other people.

They will have to revisit the SpiralFrog web site monthly to keep access to the music they download. And the songs will be encoded in Microsoft’s WMA format, meaning they will not work on Apple iPod portable music players.

Later: The LATimes’ article, which is always so much more refreshingly upfront about record company attitudes — Universal Music to Offer Free Downloads - pdf

“If someone wants to buy a million CDs from us and then give them away on a street corner, that’s fine with us as long as we get paid,” said Larry Kenswil, a top digital-media executive at Universal Music.

The record company will receive an upfront payment from SpiralFrog and a portion of the company’s advertising revenue. “Anything that encourages people to get music from legitimate sources is a good thing.”

[...] But SpiralFrog’s success is far from guaranteed.

[...] Finally, there’s the question that cuts to the core of SpiralFrog’s business model: Will fans sit through a 90-second ad to get free music?

Later (Sep 06) — EMI publishing in downloads deal

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OT: You Learn Something Every Day! [2:43 pm]

I have one of these in my office, so it was great to learn this bit of trivia about the origins of the famous North American jackalope in this article: How a Vaccine Search Ended in Triumph

Research that could have led them in the right direction was done in the 1930’s by Dr. Richard Shope of the Rockefeller University, who on a hunting trip heard a friend describe seeing rabbits with “horns,” which were actually large warts.

Dr. Shope asked his friend to send some of the horns. He then ground them up, filtered them through porcelain that let only tiny virus-size particles through, and injected the filtrate into other rabbits, which grew horns in turn.

“Incidentally, that’s where the jackalope myth comes from,” said Dr. William Bonnez, who was part of the University of Rochester’s vaccine development team. (Jackalopes, jackrabbits with antelope horns, are made by taxidermists and appear on things like postcards from Wyoming. But references to horned rabbits go back centuries, and their condition probably stemmed from papilloma infections.)

Dr. Shope’s work showed the cause was a virus, but it was not until the 1980’s that DNA amplification allowed a German researcher, Dr. Harald zur Hausen, to pin down papilloma as the cause.

Another site with an explanation

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Whistleblowing, On YouTube [8:55 am]

A new outlet for whistleblowers: On YouTube, Charges of Security Flaws - pdf

Michael De Kort was frustrated.

The 41-year-old Lockheed Martin engineer had complained to his bosses. He had told his story to government investigators. He had called congressmen.

But when no one seemed to be stepping up to correct what he saw as critical security flaws in a fleet of refurbished Coast Guard patrol boats, De Kort did just about the only thing left he could think of to get action: He made a video and posted it on YouTube.com.

“What I am going to tell you is going to seem preposterous,” De Kort solemnly tells viewers near the outset of the 10-minute clip. Posted three weeks ago, the video describes what De Kort says are blind spots in the ship’s security cameras, equipment that malfunctions in cold weather and other problems. [...] In response to De Kort’s charges, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said the service has “taken the appropriate level of action.” A spokeswoman for the contractors said the allegations were without merit.

[...] “This is an excellent example of the democratization of the media, where everyone has access to the printing press of the 21st century,” said Dina Kaplan, co-founder of Blip.tv, a site that hosts grass-roots television programming.

Kaplan, like others, was hard-pressed to think of another video like De Kort’s. “We have some people that come to mind that like to complain about government conspiracies,” she said. “But in terms of something truly substantive and credible, nothing springs to mind.”

De Kort knew his strategy for raising concerns about communications and surveillance systems on a 123-foot Coast Guard patrol boat was unorthodox. That was the point.

The video

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Whistling Past The Graveyard, Still [7:47 am]

Can Blu-ray Heat Up Hollywood Again? - pdf

All over the movie business, people are hoping that the new high-definition DVDs — either in its Blu-ray form or its rival HD-DVD — will take off and mitigate the reality that hangs over the home entertainment business. The DVD go-go years are over.

For many in Hollywood, it’s as if they just discovered Santa isn’t real. No matter how bad the movies, the box office, the marketing costs, the bloated star salaries, there was always salvation in the shiny little disc. The studios could make and market one for $5 and then sell it to consumers for more than $17, a tidy profit of at least $12 bucks per disc. The disc generated rivers of cash. “Finding Nemo” is the all-time bestseller on DVD; it made $340 million at the U.S. box office and $537 million in home video.

[...] American homes are now officially crammed with DVD players and copies of everything, including Season 3 of “The Golden Girls,” “Fitzcarraldo” and various special editions of “The Terminator.” According to the Digital Entertainment Network, 80% of all households own DVD players. The most enthusiastic DVD buyers have generally been new DVD owners looking to build their collections. Many people have rafts of the shiny jewel cases they’ve never even opened.

“I don’t know when you’re supposed to watch them all,” sighs one marketing honcho surveying her DVD closet. “I could only hope for a long incapacitation.”

[...] DVD sales constitute 50% to 60% of the revenue on any given picture. Plus, the studios had deemed for themselves the right to be piggy with the booty. Generally, the writers, stars and directors earn royalties that are based on just 20% of a DVD’s net income, with the other 80% pouring right into the studio’s bottom line.

“I think there was a feeling in town that because the DVD was growing, it would cover for sins,” notes Ben Feingold, head of home entertainment for Sony.

[...] “DVD sales will go down this year because consumers know about high definition but they don’t know which format to buy,” says Reed Hastings, chairman of Netflix, the online DVD rental powerhouse that has been growing at the expense of traditional video stores. “The problem with picking sides is that creates consumer anxiety, and so they’ll just stop buying, period, or slow down their buying. The solution to getting the business growing is to have the studios support both formats. In video games, the two main formats are Xbox and PlayStation, and the market does well with two formats.”

At $1,000, the Blu-ray players cost about $500 more than the HD-DVD players, which in turn cost about $450 more than a regular DVD player. Although the new technology provides richer, more detailed imagery, some critics wonder whether consumers will really be able to see the difference if they don’t possess gigantic 65-inch plasma TV screens.

Yet hope springs eternal in Hollywood.

Good luck with that…

Later: High-definition DVD market facing static - pdf

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Ain’t Technology Wonderful? [7:19 am]

So, is this a good thing? Or a bad one? How do you feel about region “editing” of news content, and the laws that lead to the development of this sort of technology? What does this do to the notion that the NYTimes Online is not exactly the same thing as the NYTimes newspaper?

Essentially the NYTimes Online is continuing the conversion of its online outlet into something distinctly different from the newspaper. The real question is whether the online readership will understand that the Web version of the NYTimes is no longer the “paper of record” (although TimesSelect should have already put the end to that notion).

At least the Times reported it’s doing this. Times Withholds Web Article in Britain

If Web readers in Britain were intrigued by the headline “Details Emerge in British Terror Case,” which sat on top of The New York Times’s home page much of yesterday, they would have been disappointed with a click.

“On advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of nytimes.com in Britain,” is the message they would have seen. “This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial.”

In adapting technology intended for targeted advertising to keep the article out of Britain, The Times addressed one of the concerns of news organizations publishing online: how to avoid running afoul of local publishing laws.

[...] Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, said restricting information fit with trends across the Internet. “There’s a been a sense that technology can create a form of geographic zoning on the Internet for many years now — that they might not be 100 percent effective, but effective enough,” Mr. Zittrain said. “And there’s even a sense that international courts might be willing to take into account these efforts.

I wonder what Jonathan really thinks about this development; the quote is carefully neutral, as one might expect from an attorney….

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StopBadWare Aims at AOL [7:15 am]

A Watchdog Group Warns Against AOL’s Free Software

The group, StopBadware.org, posted an “open inquiry” into the AOL software yesterday, meaning that a dialogue has been opened with the company and that a full “badware” designation is still pending.

The report, however, stated that the AOL client software, which provides subscribers with a suite of services, also installed extra software deceptively, altered the Web browser and other computer components without notifying the user, and did not uninstall completely, among other “badware behaviors.”

Similar characteristics are often found in pernicious forms of spyware and adware, often called malware. The StopBadware organization was founded in part to assist consumers in spotting shady software. The group is run by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and the Oxford Internet Institute of Oxford University.

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Dataveillance: Airline Travel [6:58 am]

Homeland Security wants to know your telephone number, credit card number, travel itinerary, frequent flyer number, next of kin and meal & seating preferences — but it’s for your protection. His op-ed in the Washington Post, A Tool We Need to Stop the Next Airliner Plot (pdf) starts with an amazing assertion and then keeps on going.

Imagine that our troops in Afghanistan raided an al-Qaeda safe house and captured a computer containing the cellphone numbers of operatives in Europe. Wouldn’t it be important to know whether one of those cellphone numbers was used to book a transatlantic flight? Unfortunately, today our ability to make that connection remains limited: Information that terrorists readily share with travel agents cannot easily be shared throughout the United States government. [Emphasis added] That needs to change.

Let’s just think about that for a second: “Information that terrorists readily share with travel agents cannot easily be shared throughout the United States government.” The problem is, he’s not asking to collect that information about terrorists: he wants to collect that information about travelers in the hopes that he can use it to detect terrorists. If we rewrite the sentence to describe what he actually wants, you get something like this — “Information that travelers readily share with travel agents cannot easily be shared throughout the United States government and the government wants to collect and employ that information inconjunction with other data sources to try to figure out whether any of you travelers is a terrorist (no guarantees against either Type I or Type II errors, either).

The fact is that, no, I’m not comfortable with the notion that just because I share information with a travel agent, I should be happy to share it with my government. My travel agent faces a wide range of well established forms of liability should she misuse that data; I’m not sure what obligations my government has (or, worse, will be held to) should it elect to misuse that data. And, as we continue to learn, there are a lot of things that they can do with some of that information.

At this rate, we all need to take a moment and reflect upon the words of the Fourth Amendment, and ask ourselves if it can be reconciles with Secretary Chertoff’s wants:

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In case you were wondering what I meant by “keeps on going,” here the Secretary is complaining about the EU’s privacy protections:

The U.S. government has collected PNR [passenger name record] data on travelers aboard international flights to the United States since the early 1990s. This information is of such value that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress mandated its continued collection. But in the past few years European privacy concerns have limited the ability of counterterrorism officials to gain broad access to data of this sort.

*Sigh* Recall that control of travel movements is another one of those slippery slope things that have been used to limit freedom in many societies. How confident are you that it stops with just “collecting” this data? And when has any data collection, once established, found only one application? Do you buy this closing set of arguments?

Protecting personal privacy is a part of responding to the post-Sept. 11 world, but it should not reflexively block us from developing new screening tools. Indeed, more data sharing leads to more precisely targeted screening, which actually improves privacy by reducing questioning and searches of innocent travelers.

Uh-huh. Not to mention reducing the government’s need to submit to any external scrutiny of its actions. Got any bridges for sale, Mr. Secretary?

Later: in case you missed it, expect a full court press on this — see the quote: Bush Shields U.S., Cheney Says: The vice president says `sound policy decisions’ by the president, and a vigilant government, have deterred terrorist strikes since 9/11. - pdf

Rumsfeld said that in every war, there had been “setbacks and difficulties” and compared critics of the Iraq war to critics of World War II. Without naming him, Rumsfeld singled out then-U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy.

“When Hitler was bombing London in 1940, a former U.S. ambassador came home and declared, ‘Democracy is finished in England,’ ” Rumsfeld said. “And he said, ‘It may be [finished] here’ as well. Think of that.”

Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy, had opposed U.S. involvement in the war and doubted the British could defeat Germany. The elder Kennedy resigned his diplomatic post as war plans progressed and before public support for U.S. involvement surged after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Tell me that you think the LATimes writer came up with that historical tid-bit all on his own.

Much later (Sept 11): and op-ed from the Washington Post — Share Data — and Protect Rights - pdf

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