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A tool to stop image snatchers

Start-up company Parable will introduce a new tool, ThingMaker, to help Net designers protect their copyrighted work.

Producing artistic content for the Internet is half the challenge designers face. Protecting content from copyright violations is the other half.

Next month, one start-up company, Parable, will introduce a new tool, ThingMaker, to help address the latter problem. ThingMaker will prevent Net surfers from snatching images, sound files, or animations without permission.

Parable will announce the product next week at Internet Showcase; a beta version will be available on the company's Web site on May 15.

Protecting content on the Internet is complicated by the ease of duplicating digital content. Some multimedia content, such as Shockwave animations or RealAudio files, is already protected from unauthorized copying. But much of the graphics, video, and standard sound files that adorn Web sites is open game for anyone who wants to save the files to disk.

According to Parable, ThingMaker will allow designers to "lock" ordinary graphics and sound files so that they cannot be duplicated or modified. But company executives also say ThingMaker offers more flexible copyright protections than Director (which produces Shockwave files) or other multimedia tools.

For example, some but not all of ThingMaker multimedia will be able to be copied. ThingMaker also allows artists to embed a hyperlink to a home page with the artist's biographical data so that potential clients can contact them.

"What an artist wants is to get known," said Steve Barlow, chairman and chief technology officer at Parable. "Now, there is a huge new opportunity for artists."

ThingMaker is not a multimedia design tool itself, but instead works with multimedia content created with other graphic and sound design packages, such as Photoshop, Director, or GIF Animator. The basic ThingMaker program will cost less than a $100 and will work with standard bitmap images. Special converters for Director and animated GIFs will cost an extra $100 each.

In order for ThingMaker to work, users will need to download a special free plug-in, called the ThingViewer, that works with Netscape Communications' Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Other companies besides Parable are tackling copyright issues on the Internet as well. IBM is promoting a technology called cryptolopes that allows publishers to seal pictures, text, and other content into a digital envelope that can only be opened if a user pays first.