Canning the spam

National | Stopping e-junk, buying virtual victory, and nabbing Napster

Issue: "Locking up the big guns," Aug. 12, 2000

You've got spam

Junk e-mail is a daily annoyance for millions and it isn't going away. One of the ways to get mild relief is through filtering, using tools from various companies and nonprofits that block spam messages. Yet there's no way to definitely know the difference between useful and useless mail-and that's where controversy brews.

Case in point: The marketing company called Yesmail is suing an anti-spam nonprofit called the Mail Abuse Prevention System because MAPS placed it on a list of junk e-mailers.

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The argument is over a fine point. To avoid the spammer label, MAPS requires companies to allow users to first sign up to receive ads and then confirm their intention via e-mail. Yesmail lets the user subscribe and then opt to unsubscribe at any time. It won a restraining order that temporarily had itself taken out of the rogues' gallery. Right now the lawsuit is suspended while the two sides negotiate a settlement.

This conflict lies between two worlds. One says that people have a right to check their e-mail without being harassed by sales pitches. The other says that e-mail is just as much fair game as sending direct mail copy to someone's mailbox. After all, there are billions if not trillions of dollars at stake in the e-commerce game.

Practically everybody receives junk messages. A Gartner Group survey last year found that 91 percent of e-mail users get spammed at least once a week; most of them favor either regulating spam or banning it altogether.

While much unsolicited e-mail is of the fly-by-night variety, numerous mainstream marketers want a shot at people's inboxes. What is spam to one person is useful to another.

Real money, imaginary merchandise

What will you bid on this fine Tunare executioner's hood? Or this lovely Tribunal batskull earring? These are the imaginary trinkets of an online fantasy world, but people are willing to pay real money to get them.

Role-playing fantasy games attract hordes of addicted gamers. Each person plays a character in the alternate universe of EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Asheron's Call like actors in an improvised play. Over time, the characters become more powerful and amass treasure. Those who don't want to wait have found they can often find goodies like armor or swords or a really nice cloak by buying them-for real money-from other players. Thousands of dollars can be spent on items that only exist on a computer screen.

Why would an imaginary castle sell for over $100 on eBay? Part of the reason is that some players see the game as an alternate existence preferable to the real world. Part of it is that these games are so expansive and complicated that getting a powerful character could take several 40-hour weeks. The companies that run the games frown on the practice.

So when does a game stop being fun and start taking control of one's time, wallet, and lifestyle? Most people who play such games are casual, but a vocal minority takes it to a Gnostic extreme.

Bye, bye Miss Napster?

July 28 was the day the music almost died for users of the controversial Napster program. A judge's injunction nearly shut down the music file-sharing service, but a last-minute stay kept it going. The future is still cloudy.

The record industry claims that Napster and programs like it are simply channels to pass around copyrighted materials without paying for them. Users counter that trading songs on the Internet is a way of fighting back against high CD prices, the dominance of a few record labels, and the unavailability of obscure or out-of-print music.

Chief U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel issued the injunction: "They've created a monster, for lack of a better term, and that's the consequence they face. I can't just let it go on."

This set off a rush of users trying to grab songs in the remaining hours, while others went looking for alternatives. Counting the files available on Napster is difficult, but they stretch into the hundreds of millions. But even if Napster dies, something will step into its shoes. More headlines, legal disputes, and controversy are sure to follow.

The whole Napster affair threatens to change the face of intellectual property in America. If someone makes a book, song, movie, or piece of software, in what sense does he "own" it? What rights does he have to make money for the effort when new copies are created? What happens if copyright laws can be easily ignored because copying and redistribution is available at the click of a mouse?


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