Features

Cyber rights or wrongs?

National | Movie and TV industries say high-tech distribution is theft, while PC manufacturers raise prices

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

I want my DVD
Want to copy your DVDs? Hollywood doesn't want you to and is trying to stop distribution of a computer program that lets you save your favorite movies to your hard drive. Granted, it isn't practical yet, since one film may take up several gigabytes of disk space, but that it can be done at all has the movie industry furious. Warner Bros., MGM, Sony, and several other studios have filed lawsuits against 27 named and 72 unnamed defendants for distributing a piece of software called DeCSS. This program bypasses the Content Scrambling System (CSS), which encrypts programs stored on DVDs, and so allowes people to save them onto their hard drives. DeCSS's supporters say that they have the same right to back up a movie stored on DVD as they do software distributed on the same type of discs. The studios call DeCSS a skeleton key for piracy. "This is a case of theft," said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. "The posting of the de-encryption formula is no different from making and then distributing unauthorized keys to a department store." The studios convinced Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge William Elfving to issue a preliminary injunction ordering the program off American websites. A federal judge in New York had already ruled that three specific sites posting DeCSS had violated the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The studios are up against a small army of computer mavens and programmers who say that reverse engineering, including that of the DeCSS variety, is part of what built U.S. technological prowess. "This isn't about hacking or privacy," said Tom McGuire of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's about sharing legitimate information." Networks versus the net
Want to watch TV online? You're not supposed to be able to watch major networks online, and a startup that is trying to simulcast them has found itself in hot water. A Canadian site called iCraveTV.com intercepts TV stations in Toronto and Buffalo, rebroadcasts them without permission, and inserts its own ads. The NFL, NBA, several motion picture studios, and three TV networks have sued, charging the site with "one of the largest and most brazen thefts of intellectual property ever committed in the United States." The site claims to be restricted to Canadian users, but since people can easily visit from the United States or elsewhere, the sports and media companies say the distinction is worthless. iCraveTV "makes no effort to identify the viewer or verify that the viewer is in fact accessing its website from within Canada," the lawsuit said. Charges include copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and unfair competition. "Bill Gates is spending a lot of money bringing the Internet to the family television," said Bill Craig, president of the company that operates the site. "We're spending a lot less to bring television to the Internet." He compared his offerings to when radio stations started playing records and consumers started taping TV shows on their VCRs. The case shows how hazy copyright protection can be on the Internet. The broadcasters see iCraveTV.com as stepping on the complex rights systems that cover TV programs. Internet companies see the TV industry trying to protect cable TV by keeping signals off the Net. The technology for retransmitting TV signals keeps getting less expensive, so this could be a landmark case. Costlier computers
Want to buy a computer? If you've grown accustomed to falling prices, you may be in for shock. The average retail price of home computers rose last fall, from $790 in September to $844 in December, according to the PC Data research firm. Manufacturers gained breathing room for price hikes when such large competitors as IBM, Packard Bell-NEC, and Acer bailed out of the market. While computers themselves continue to improve, specific models are becoming more expensive. For example, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq raised prices on their cheapest machines: Hewlett-Packard's jumped $100 to $649 and Compaq's hiked $150 to $699. (Neither price includes a monitor.) Last year, some companies tried to specialize in cheap, low-end PCs aimed at people who just want to check their email, surf the Web a little, and do some word processing. The king of this hill was eMachines, which jumped from nowhere to become the No. 3 PC retail seller with a $400 machine. Now more powerful boxes that cost $800-$900 and sport more processing power and hard-drive storage space are joining the cost-cutter model on store shelves. These prices are still better than various times in the 1990s when low-end PCs with far less power cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000. And the price increases don't necessarily mean that high-tech growth will slow. Last year, the PC market survived all the Y2K hype and (according to research firm Dataquest) surged 22 percent worldwide. Dell alone has 16 percent of the market and has $30 million in sales every day. That's a lot of silicon.

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