Week in review: Defending tech

U.S. courts were busier than usual with cases tied to the tech world, as judges weighed in on copyrights, spam, international libel law and prisoner rights.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
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Courts in the United States were busier than usual with cases tied to the tech world, as judges weighed in on copyrights, spam, international libel law and prisoner rights.

In a closely watched test of the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a jury acquitted a Russian software company of criminal copyright charges related to selling a program that can crack antipiracy protections on electronic books.

The company faced four charges related to directly designing and marketing software that could be used to crack the copyright protections of Adobe Systems' eBooks, plus an additional charge related to conspiring to do so. The jury acquitted the company of all charges. The jury foreman said the jurors agreed that ElcomSoft's product was illegal but acquitted the company because they believed the company didn't mean to violate the law.

A congressman who is trying to defang the controversial copyright law said he's not deterred by the acquittal. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who in October proposed rescinding part of the DMCA, said the law remains a problem despite the court's decision. "As far as the bill going forward is concerned, the need for the legislation is as great as ever," Boucher said.

Apparently the check is in the mail. A Virginia federal court awarded America Online nearly $7 million in damages as part of the Internet service provider's legal victory over a junk e-mail operation. The award marks the company's second triumph over the marketer CN Productions and its owner Jay Nelson, who were charged with sending, for more than four years, unsolicited and deceptive e-mail to AOL and its members.

The ruling is one of the first in which damages were awarded under an amended Virginia antispam statute, which mandates that offenders pay $25,000 for each day of sending junk mail in violation of the rule. AOL was awarded the damages after CN Productions violated a court injunction set in 1999 barring it from sending AOL members deceptive, unsolicited e-mail, which accounted for up to 25 percent of the bulk mail sent through AOL.

Less than a week after Australia's high court issued a ruling suggesting that online publishers are fair game for libel suits anywhere their content appears, a U.S. federal court veered in the opposite direction. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said two Connecticut newspapers could not be sued for libel in a Virginia court on the basis of allegedly defamatory articles posted on their Web sites.

That ruling breaks with last week's decision in Australia, which sent shock waves through the world of online publishing by saying that the U.S.-based Dow Jones news organization would have to defend a defamation lawsuit brought by a Melbourne, Australia, businessman in an Australian court. Barron's magazine, a Dow Jones publication, had published the allegedly libelous material on servers in New Jersey, on its subscribers-only Web site.

Prisoner rights groups cheered a federal court ruling that quashes attempts to halt Web postings that mention inmates. A U.S. district judge put a temporary halt to an Arizona state law that banned prisoners from posting information about their cases on the Web or corresponding using a remote computer service or communications service provider.

Staking patent claims
America Online has quietly secured a patent that could shake up the competitive landscape for instant messaging software. The patent, originally filed in 1997 and granted in September this year, gives AOL instant messaging subsidiary ICQ rights as the inventor of the popular IM Internet application. The patent covers anything resembling a network that lets multiple IM users see when other people are present and then communicate with them.

The breadth of this definition could create controversy in the industry. AOL's primary competitors, Microsoft and Yahoo, have their own instant messaging services, each with millions of subscribers. With the patent, AOL could technically sue rival instant messaging services for infringement backed by the argument spelled out in the patent.

Intergraph filed suit against Dell Computer, Gateway and Hewlett-Packard, alleging that the PC companies violated its patents by incorporating Pentium-family processors into their computers. The lawsuit--which could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and eventually have an impact on every PC maker that used Intel chips in the last seven years--is based on a similar intellectual-property suit launched by Intergraph against Intel that was settled in April this year.

If Intergraph's legal arguments stand up, HP and the other PC makers may have to compensate the company for any gain they may have received from selling Intel-based PCs since 1995--through the biggest boom in the history of the computer industry.

Coming attractions
Sonicblue's new DVD player will be able to access content on PCs, such as photos, music and videos, via a wireless network connection. The company will demonstrate the Go-Video D2730 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and will begin selling it for $250 in the first quarter of 2003.

The company is expecting to add wireless networking to other devices, such as its ReplayTV digital video recorder, as part of Sonicblue's ongoing strategy of connecting consumers to digital media. The player is part of a growing effort in the PC and consumer-electronics industries to combine technologies, making digital media such as images and music stored on PCs accessible on consumer-electronics devices using wired or wireless networking.

Consumer-electronics giant Sharp next year plans to sell notebooks and flat-screen LCD monitors that can show three-dimensional images. The monitors will let people see high-resolution 3D images or run 3D programs without using special glasses or additional software.

The technology also will be aimed at businesses. General Motors has discussed experimenting with the technology in its modeling and design department. Medical imaging companies and e-commerce sites also are potential customers.

The age of the $200 personal computer appears to be upon us. While big-name PC makers like HP and Gateway offer desktops priced as low as $399, without a monitor, smaller manufacturers are finding an audience by offering less-expensive machines, starting as low as $199, without Microsoft's Windows.

These so-called $200 desktop PCs don't always measure up to brand-name competition in clock speed or storage capacity. But the less-expensive desktops have been catching on by appealing to consumers and small-business owners who think even the cheapest desktop now has the performance necessary to tackle everyday tasks such as Web browsing, analysts say.

Also of note
Apple Computer is refining a strategy for connecting cell phones and other portable devices to its Macintosh systems in an effort to boost sale...People using Windows XP or popular music player WinAmp could fall prey to a vulnerability, enabling a modified music file to take control of a person's...A former system administrator for UBS PaineWebber was charged with sabotaging two-thirds of the company's computer systems in an attempt to crash its stock price...Yahoo began selling articles from the Associated Press' archive on its news site, the latest step by the Web portal to diversify its revenue...Web advertising sales grew slightly in the third quarter from the preceding three months, buoyed by a several top performers, but overall revenue is still down from 2001...Microsoft announced the availability of new entertainment software for the Windows XP operating system, featuring fresh tools for handling music, movies and photos on the PC.