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Week in review: RIAA rings twice

The music industry's antipiracy campaign hits sour notes as the Recording Industry Association of America acknowledges that it erroneously sent dozens of copyright infringement notices.

The music industry's antipiracy campaign hit some sour notes this week, as the Recording Industry Association of America sent out retractions for earlier, erroneous notices of copyright infringement.

The RIAA apologized and blamed a temporary worker for firing off legal notifications that invoked the Digital Millennium Copyright Act without confirming that any copyrighted files were actually being offered for download. "We have sent two dozen withdrawal notices--all appear related to this particular temp," the RIAA said in a statement. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused."

The apology came a day after the RIAA withdrew a DMCA notice to Penn State University's astronomy and astrophysics department. Sent during Penn State's final exams, it prompted the central computing office at the campus to threaten the department with having its Internet connection severed unless the infringing material was removed. The problem was that no infringing file existed on the department's computer.

In another incident, Speakeasy, a national broadband provider, said the RIAA had apologized for sending it a cease-and-desist letter alleging illegal activity on a subscriber's FTP site devoted to the Commodore Amiga computer.

Apple Computer may soon find itself on the receiving end of one of those letters. Apple's iTunes software apparently contains features that allow Mac users to stream music to one another over a network. The songs are not downloaded permanently but do allow computer users to listen to any song on another network-connected Macintosh's hard drive.

Several groups of online programmers say they have figured out ways to extend this feature from a local area network to the Net. A few Web sites and software applications are claiming to allow people to search other Net-connected Macintosh computers' hard drives in order to listen to songs online.

No Linux lost
The mail seems to be the preferred method of delivering a warning. SCO Group, which claims its Unix intellectual property has been illegally incorporated into Linux, has sent letters to about 1,500 of the world's largest corporations warning that they could be liable for using Linux.

The move dramatically broadens the cash-strapped company's potential legal actions beyond its initial target, IBM. Industry analysts viewed the move as an escalation of the company's intellectual property war and an attempt to put more pressure on companies to acquire SCO.

"SCO has lobbed its dirty bomb into the user community, saying, 'You'd better clean this up in a big hurry or there's going to be a lot of damage,'" one analyst said.

SCO also said the legal problems with Linux are severe enough that it has ceased sales of its own version of Linux.

For its part, SuSE Linux plans to continue honoring its commitments to UnitedLinux, despite the allegations by SCO, which is a fellow founding member of the alliance. Meanwhile, Linux vendors MandrakeSoft and Red Hat--which are not members of the UnitedLinux group--said they had not been contacted about the allegations and did not see them affecting business.

SuSE could be the particular focus of SCO's interest when it comes the alliance of Linux vendors. SuSE's Enterprise Server software forms the basis for the UnitedLinux code, which is sold by members under various brand names. The other UnitedLinux members include Conectiva and Turbolinux.

A SuSE executive expressed surprise at the attacks. "SCO's actions are...indeed curious. We are not aware, nor has SCO made any specific attempt to make us aware, of any unauthorized code in any SuSE Linux product."

Despite the controversy, Linux has improved significantly in the past two years, with a version from SuSE edging out that of rival Red Hat in the businesses features race. In a periodic study of Linux, versions of the operating system from SuSE and Red Hat have moved from "OK" to "good." Debian made a bigger leap, from "weak" to "good," but still lags the other two versions.

"In every category, SuSE either held first place or tied Red Hat for that position," the study said, with a particular advantage in systems management. The study gauged operating systems features that businesses need to run servers, such as support for large amounts of memory, crash analysis, remote administration, networking standards and new Web services software.

Security alert
Hackers may get some bright ideas from a student who has shed light on security flaws in Java and .Net virtual machines by using a lamp, some known properties of computer memory and a bit of luck. An attack requires physical access to the computer, so the technique poses little threat to virtual machines running on PCs and servers. But it could be used to steal data from smart cards, said Sudhakar Govindavajhala, a computer-science graduate student at Princeton who demonstrated the procedure.

The technique relies on the ability of energy to "flip bits" in memory. While cosmic rays occasionally can cause a random bit in memory to change value, from 0 to 1 or from 1 to 0, Govindavajhala decided not to wait. He used a lamp to heat up the chips inside a computer and cause one or more bits of memory to change. By doing so, the researcher broke the security model virtual machines rely on: that the computer faithfully executes its instruction set.

A very real threat is posed by a new virus called Fizzer, which apparently spreads via e-mail and the peer-to-peer file-sharing service Kazaa. The virus arrives in an e-mail with of a number of potential subject lines, including "So how are you?" "There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance." "You must not show this to anyone." "Today is a good day to die." "Filth is a death." "Watchin' the game, having a bud." "Did you ever stop to think that viruses are good for the economy?"

Fizzer spreads in e-mail as an attachment with .exe, .pif, .scr and .com extensions. When activated the worm sends itself to e-mail addresses stored in the infected PC's Windows and Outlook address books and drops into the Windows folder several files called initbak.dat, iservc.dll, iservc.exe and ProgOp.exe.

The mass-mailing computer virus nearly overwhelmed several Internet relay chat (IRC) networks, prompting the operators of more than 50 networks to band together to stave off the digital infection.

"It was almost to the point of taking down our network," said Tyrel "Nemo" Haveman, an administrator for the Mysteria IRC network. "We noticed it first around midday in the U.S. on Monday. Within a couple of hours, we had 500 connections." Mysteria normally has only 150 to 250 people online at any one time, he added.

E3: Let the games begin
Sony, whose PlayStation 2 games console has outsold rivals from Microsoft and Nintendo 3 to 1, has announced plans for a handheld game player called PSP. Introduced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show, the PSP would compete to some extent with Nintendo's Game Boy, which has all but owned the portable game market for more than a decade.

But Sony apparently has grander plans than a nice game of Tetris. The PSP will have a screen capable of showing 3D images, stereo sound, USB 2.0 connectivity and a custom processor built on cutting-edge 90-nanometer chipmaking technology. The device will also use a new media format. The UMD disc is an optical disc about half the size of a DVD or CD and capable of holding 1.8GB of data.

Microsoft weighed in with the announcement of the first nongame application for its Xbox video game console and touted a handful of high-profile games intended to boost the system's cachet among hardcore players. The $40 Xbox Music Mixer package, set to go on sale this fall, will include PC and Xbox software that will allow owners to transfer digital music and photos from their computer to the console's hard drive.

The package helps expand the utility of the Xbox by allowing it to become a conduit for running slideshows on a television and for doing karaoke using the microphone included in the kit. Nongame uses for the Xbox have been the subject of widespread speculation ever since the console was announced, with many analysts casting the machine as a Trojan horse for Microsoft to expand its reach into the living room.

Also of note
Microsoft claimed that the iLoo, an outhouse with a built-in terminal for Web browsing, was an April Fools' Day gag--then admitted the next day that it was a real project that had already been scuttled...Advanced Micro Devices released the Athlon XP 3200+ for desktops, the last scheduled member of a chip family that helped turn the company's fortunes around...Underground Internet file-swapping circles buzzed with rumors that a copy of "The Matrix Reloaded" had been released online before its theatrical opening date...New York state authorities arrested the e-mail marketer "Buffalo Spammer," in the state's first criminal case against a junk mailer.