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National | Archivists fight copyright extensions, critics fight an ID chip for humans, and IBM speeds up microchips

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

Copyright wrongs?
The Supreme Court will soon take up one of the knottiest Internet controversies: copyright law. Recent law expanded the length of time creators of books, movies, or musical recordings can control their products. Critics argue that the extension protects cash cows like Mickey Mouse while keeping numerous important works out of print. Congress stretched copyright protection by 20 years in 1988 at the urging of Disney and other media companies. (Without the extension, Mickey Mouse would have gone into the public domain in 2003 and Donald Duck would have followed in 2009.) Now works are protected for 70 years after the death of the creator and those owned by corporations are now protected for a 95-year term. Once a work goes into public domain, it can be freely reproduced in any medium, including the Internet. The law was a serious setback for librarians and webmasters who want to create digital archives of public domain materials. A nonprofit Internet publisher and other plaintiffs argue that this keeps thousands of books, songs, and movies from being reissued online. They are suing to have the law changed, claiming that Congress overreached its bounds and violated the First Amendment. They note that in 1790, copyrights lasted 14 years. They argue that the Founding Fathers wanted a "rich public domain" and tried to restrain the "state-backed monopolies" of copyrights. Supporters of the law say the extension is necessary for authors to be fairly compensated. A decision is expected this spring. Under my skin
A Florida company wants to market perhaps the most controversial security measure ever devised: a computer ID chip that can be embedded under someone's skin. Privacy advocates object, but the idea's backers say it provides almost foolproof protection for airports, nuclear facilities, and other strategic sites. Applied Digital Solutions' new VeriChip is about the size of a grain of rice, hard to remove, and difficult to counterfeit. A doctor using a large needle can implant the $200 microchip, which contains a magnetic coil that a special scanner can read. Possible uses range from opening doors to decrypting medical records to targeting surveillance equipment. The Palm Beach- based designers plan to ask the FDA for permission to sell the VeriChip, which they say they will market on the condition that its use is voluntary. "The line in the sand that we draw is that the use of the VeriChip would always be voluntarily," said Keith Bolton, Applied Digital's chief technology officer. "We would never provide it to a company that intended to coerce people to use it." The privacy issues raised by VeriChip won't die easily. Lee Tien, a senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, complained that unscrupulous people could begin using it for dangerous purposes. "It's what we call function creep," he said. "At first a device is used for applications we all agree are good but then it slowly is used for more than it was intended." The need for speed
IBM says it has created the world's fastest semiconductor circuit, one that can power chips many times faster than those on today's PCs. This speedy new invention crunches numbers at speeds of over 110 Gigahertz and processes an electrical signal in 4.3 trillionths of a second. Microchip speed is the heartbeat of the computer industry, as each new innovation lets processors do more in less time. IBM designed the circuits-which are slated for use in chips by this spring-by using a special process that mixes silicon with the mineral germanium as a way to inexpensively improve processing speed. Many in high-tech see innovation as their only hope for recovering from the economic downdraft that followed the stock market decline of the last two years. Intel chief executive Craig Barrett told a trade audience in late February that new products are needed to excite customers. "The only way to get out of a recession is with new products," he told the Intel Developer Forum. "Old technology does not sell.... You need to continue to invest." Mr. Barrett defended Intel's decision to keep spending on research, development, and manufacturing as the economy declined, saying the company now has faster and cheaper processors. The hardware giant is also changing its manufacturing to a cheaper process that makes chips on new, large silicon wafers.

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