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Week in review: Scuttling the pirates

The file-swapping seas are getting rougher for digital music pirates, with potential blockades coming from Internet service providers and the courts.

The file-swapping seas are getting rougher for digital music pirates, with potential blockades coming from Internet service providers and the courts.

File-swapping via services such as Napster and Kazaa has been among the most popular activities on high-speed Internet service providers' networks. As a result, some dedicated file-swappers, known as "bandwidth hogs," account for a hugely disproportionate amount of network traffic. Now many of the biggest high-speed ISPs are considering putting a cap on the amount of bandwidth that their subscribers can use per month. The move could undermine subscribers' free swapping ways--something that many lawsuits have not been able to achieve.

If people know they have a limited amount of bandwidth available, they'll be less likely to download voraciously or to allow people to upload songs and music from their computers. In a closely watched initiative, Bell Canada's has put caps on its DSL (digital subscriber line) service, limiting the amount of bandwidth its subscribers can use each month.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles federal judge heard arguments as to whether record companies and movie studios can sue the parent company of Kazaa, the most popular online file-swapping service, in the United States. Much of Kazaa's future hangs on the judge's decision. The parent company, Sharman Networks, is headquartered in Australia and incorporated in the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, and has tried to keep business contact with the United States to a minimum in order to decrease its legal risk.

If a judge says Sharman can be sued in the United States, Kazaa will get sucked into the same legal maelstrom that has grabbed Napster, Aimster, Audio Galaxy, Grokster and Morpheus, closing some of the popular services and threatening the existence of the others. The Kazaa case is the biggest yet in the recent copyright wars that have been testing the international reach of U.S. courts.

A smaller skirmish broke out recently when the U.S. Naval Academy seized about 100 student computers that are suspected of containing unauthorized copies of copyrighted works. Each student gets a computer when they enter the academy. Illegal possession of copyrighted material could carry punishment including court-martial or a loss of leave, according to academy policy.

The seizure comes just a few weeks after movie and music industry trade groups sent a letter to more than 2,000 university and college presidents across the country, including officials at the Naval Academy, requesting help in cracking down on unauthorized file swapping.

Software first aid
RealNetworks is working on a new patch to address flaws in its popular media player software after the developer who discovered the problems said the original fix doesn't work. The vulnerabilities, which appear in the streaming media company's RealOne Player and Real Player, could affect as many as 115 million users of the software worldwide.

RealNetworks posted a patch last week, but an engineer said he was able to easily work around the fixes by making relatively minor changes to his attacks on the software. The three flaws could result in what's known as a "buffer overflow," a memory problem that could compromise security controls and theoretically allow an attacker to take control of a PC running the Real media player.

Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system also took a security hit. A flaw in the software that handles fonts for the desktop interface on Solaris-based workstations and servers could leave the computers open to attack. The vulnerability could give hackers and online vandals the ability to take control of Solaris-based systems. A Sun spokesman confirmed that the company knew of the flaw and said the company was working on a patch.

The flaw, another buffer overflow problem, appears in the X Windows Font Server (XFS) software known as fs.auto, a key component of the Solaris desktop system.

Holiday sales rebound?
Computer manufacturers are launching aggressive promotions intended to jump-start holiday sales, but these may not be enough to salvage a mediocre year. The race to offer consumers the fastest and cheapest PCs includes instant discounts at the checkout counter, mail-in rebates in excess of $100, and enhanced bundles. For example, Dell Computer is selling its new Dimension 2350 desktop with a 15-inch flat-panel display for $699 after a $100 rebate.

Dell and Hewlett-Packard have also taken the plunge, dropping the price for upgrading from a CD burner to a DVD burner on a desktop to about $200. Notebooks with bundled DVD burners could also prove popular. Several other promotions are likely to reappear after Thanksgiving, such as processor-based rebates and gift cards for consumers who buy a new PC.

Digital camera manufacturers will get in on the act next month, when prices for midrange digital cameras are expected to fall below $100. Prices for digital cameras have been steadily declining as the market grows, but with camera makers competing to pump up holiday sales, more drastic cuts could be in store.

Cameras with resolution of 2 megapixels--usually considered the minimum for good snapshot-size prints--could be selling for as low as $99 in a few weeks. Current prices for such cameras bottom out at around $199. However, camera makers would likely be losing money at such prices.

Also of note
A California woman has been sentenced to nine years in prison for software piracy, in what may be the longest sentence ever given to a first-time felon in a software counterfeiting case?Microsoft plans to offer smaller companies a more lenient licensing plan intended to stem defections to Linux or other open-source software?Internet service America Online changed its network to block pop-up spam from reaching its customers?Hewlett-Packard Laboratories hired Alan Kay, the industry luminary behind major computing technologies such as the predecessor to modern graphical interfaces and object-oriented programming?Intel's next Itanium processor likely will run at 1.5GHz, a 50 percent increase on its predecessor and an indication the company is getting better at meeting development goals for its high-end chip family? German media giant Bertelsmann struck an agreement that calls for Amazon.com to run the Web operations of its CDNow retail site?Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment plans to let soap opera fans tune into daytime dramas from the desktop, as part of an on-demand subscription service on its enthusiast site, SoapCity.com.