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Starving artists

National | Hollywood battles the Internet, Microsoft battles a judge, and other technology news

Issue: "Dumpsters or hospitals?," June 24, 2000

High-tech piracy
The war over trading music on the Internet continues to heat up. The Pew Internet Project estimates that 13 million Americans have downloaded songs, but less than 2 million people have paid to do so. "Millions of Americans have joined the online music revolution in recent months because it's simple, it's free, and so far, nobody's stopping them," explained Lee Rainie, director of the project. This is "a huge threat to the music industry now and it is a harbinger of the trouble the Internet will pose to other entertainment forms like the movies." The entertainment industry is busy trying to figure out how to respond. It blames a music-trading program called Napster for much of the activity-and the Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America both want the site shut down. "If Napster can encourage and facilitate the distribution of pirated sound recordings, then what's to stop it from doing the same to movies, software, books, magazines, newspapers, television, photographs, or video games?" MPAA president Jack Valenti asked U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. Stopping Napster is probably a moot point, since people can so easily pass bits and bytes on the Internet. Ways to trade audio and video online abound. All sorts of copy-protection schemes and self-destruct mechanisms may appear within the next few years, but an army of Net users will try to bypass those safeguards. What may result is a realignment of the music industry. If all media can be traded for free, how do artists, writers, and filmmakers make money? Will bands make albums simply to promote T-shirts and concert tours? Will commercial art wane except through advertising? If the Internet is the biggest innovation since Gutenberg's press, then it is also the biggest intellectual property challenge in history. Unfortunate distraction?
Now what happens to Microsoft? Bill Gates is brushing off a judge's ruling that the company be split in two. At a technology conference in Taiwan he called it an "unfortunate distraction" that "did not reflect reality." He said he's staying the course. In the biggest antitrust action since the AT&T breakup of the 1980s, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered Microsoft split into two "Baby Bills" because it abused its monopoly over personal computer operating systems. The most notorious misdeed was the bundling of its Web browser into Windows that helped destroy Netscape's market dominance. Microsoft quickly filed a motion to stay the penalties that Mr. Jackson imposed. Government lawyers claimed delays "would greatly damage the public interest." The software giant may have an advantage if the case moves to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia where it won an earlier battle in the case. That's why the Justice Department wants the case moved directly to the Supreme Court. Last week, the appeals court judges made that less likely when they agreed to fast-track the case if the high court sent it to them. Microsoft's competitors are watching all this carefully, hoping to take advantage of the situation. Robert Young, chairman of Linux maker Red Hat Inc., told a press conference that a breakup would open new competition in software development. He said that customers are currently "forced to constantly spend a lot more money on Microsoft" for every additional personal computer they buy. Atari's comeback
Twenty years ago, one name came up often in high-tech conversations: Atari. Almost single-handedly this company turned video games into an industry and helped put computers in the living room. The people who build today's websites were playing Pong or Centipede or Missile Command back then. But the company didn't survive to take part in today's wizardry. Warner Communications gobbled up Atari and then spat it out when the video-game market crashed around 1983. Yet the games live on. Hasbro bought the rights to Atari's name and games and re-released some of them for PCs, hoping to trade on GenX nostalgia and win new fans among kids. There's even a Centipede cartoon coming to cable TV. The graphics of the old games show their age, but they are still playable. Hasbro released updated versions of Pong, Frogger, and a few other games. A collection called "Atari Arcade Hits" gives players the exact look and feel of the early 1980s. It also gives the curious feeling of buying for a few bucks games that once cost hundreds of dollars each as stand-alone machines. Comparing these games to today's games shows how the genre has changed. Today's games often use several buttons and require lots of time spent learning moves (and throwing tokens in a slot) before gaining proficiency. The old Atari games were meant for a mass market and anybody could play them. Players simply moved a pointer around and pressed a fire button.

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