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The week in review: Piracy's new path

High-tech pirates are exploring new territory, as new chips promise to defeat Xbox copy protection and a CD becomes a most-played hit before it is made available to the public.

High-tech pirates are exploring new territory, as new chips promise to defeat Xbox copy-protection features and an Eminem CD becomes a most-played hit way before it goes on sale.

The Xtender, a "mod chip" intended to be added to the main circuit board of the Xbox, purportedly allows the console to play illegally copied game software. Will this inspire a Napster-like wave of copy infringement? Probably not, analysts say. For starters, using the mod chips requires disassembling the Xbox case and affixing the chip to the circuit board, a task that can require more than 20 soldering connections

Cracking Xbox game software may be even more difficult. Copy-protection software built into all Xbox games makes the game disc unreadable on PCs. So far, only a few hacker groups claim to have been successful in breaking the protection scheme.

And in the music world, new patterns are emerging in music piracy. Well before rapper Eminem's new record hit store shelves last week, it had already become the second-most-played CD in computer drives around the world.

This data comes care of Gracenote, which maintains a huge online database that can identify CDs by calling up the exact list and length of songs. Most of the popular music software programs for computers check this database when a new CD is put into a computer, allowing the software to tell a listener the name of the CD and its song titles.

Last week, Eminem's "The Eminem Show," which was yet to be released, cracked Gracenote's chart at No. 2. Although pirated versions of the album were widely acknowledged to be online in MP3 format, Gracenote's figures look only at physical CDs, not downloads played on a computer--showing that many fans had burned the songs on CDs and had distributed them widely.

Are you a software scofflaw? The Business Software Alliance, a trade group that represents the major software makers, says that more than half of all Web users have downloaded software they have not paid for. In a study of 1,026 Web users, the group found that 57 percent of respondents never or seldom pay for copyrighted works they download. And 12 percent admitted to pirating software.

The piracy fight is replete with fans and foes, however. Gateway began campaigning against a U.S. Senate proposal that would shift the burden for copyright protection onto the shoulders of hardware manufacturers such as Gateway. The company, which has ambitions to become a larger player in music publishing and distribution, responded with a series of tongue-in-cheek television advertisements and public statements promoting legal digital downloading.

The entertainment industry was not amused. Music and movie studios are worried about the potential loss of billions of dollars due to illegal digital downloads. CNET News.com chatted with Gateway CEO Ted Waitt on why the two industries are butting heads and whether it's at all possible to find a compromise that would satisfy both camps.

Crime on the Net
Piracy aside, keeping law and order on the Web is often a difficult task. An online electronics store reported that someone claiming to be a well-known hacker has broken into its site and has stolen customer information. TheNerds.net was trying to evaluate how many of its 100,000 customers were affected by the break-in.

A Los Angeles pharmacy and a pair of employees were fined $88 million by the state of California for being too lax in prescribing drugs over the Internet. California Gov. Gray Davis announced the fines and said that the pharmacy had violated a year-old law that makes it illegal for Internet pharmacies to fill prescriptions for patients who aren't properly examined by a licensed physician.

An 8-month-long investigation showed that Total Remedy and Prescription Center II filled more than 3,500 prescriptions over the Web that were written by doctors not licensed to practice medicine in California. Most of the prescriptions were for "lifestyle drugs" such as Propecia, a hair-loss treatment.

Cybercrime has attracted increased attention of the FBI, with the agency announcing a major reorganization that will include a new focus on technology. Protecting the United States against "cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes" is one of the FBI's top 10 priorities, Director Robert Mueller said.

Preventing high-tech crime "is a protection of our infrastructure," he said. Cyberterrorism and cybercrime can happen anywhere, and "you need the overarching responsibility in an agency such as the FBI."

However, even the relatively well meaning can find them on the wrong side of the law. Companies and executives that do business online are being dragged into foreign courts for selling products or posting materials that are legal in their own countries but that violate the laws of another land. Such challenges increasingly include criminal charges.

Disagreements over how to apply local laws to the Internet have simmered for years but are now reaching full boil. Several nations are trying to sort out cross-border Net issues with treaties, but it's been a divisive battle. So far, the copyright debate is one of the few issues where nations have reached some consensus.

The next big thing?
IBM unveiled a new storage technology, called iBoot, that lets PCs and servers use computer networking to designate remote disk drives as their primary repository for data, instead of relying on internal hard drives. Aside from greater storage capacity, using centralized storage instead of internal drives can help companies cut PC maintenance costs, saving on procedures like software upgrades for PCs.

iBoot could eventually boost server performance by letting manufacturers build thinner, diskless servers that can be stacked more closely together in a rack. iBoot also lets companies remotely boot PCs, without making changes to Windows or Linux operating system software.

Intel says its new Itanium 2 server chip will live up to its name by providing twice the performance of the current Itanium. Company test results for its prototype Itanium 2 chips show promise, but only time will show whether the extra performance will be enough to lift the chip into the spot Intel has envisioned for it: the heart of high-end business servers everywhere.

Intel designed the 64-bit Itanium architecture from scratch as a way to provide a high-performance chip for large servers that churn data from large databases and Web sites and also act as the heart of large supercomputers.

An online survey conducted recently by a Microsoft partner indicates that the software giant is considering producing a kit that would let people use an Xbox video game console and a TV to access entertainment files stored on their PC. The survey, sent to registered Xbox owners, appears to focus on Freestyle, an extension to Microsoft's Windows XP operating system aimed at turning PCs into digital media jukeboxes, although the survey refers to the product as "NewPC."

The survey includes a number of questions about a proposed Xbox Connection Kit that would let Xbox owners use the console to remotely access MP3 music and other entertainment files stored on a PC. The kit would include software and a remote control for the Xbox that would allow people to access music files and other media via a TV screen.

Also of note
Oracle's contract fiasco with California has drawn a firestorm of criticism, but some of the more controversial aspects are all too familiar to technology officials in other government agencies...Intel slashed the price of Pentium 4 processors for desktops and notebooks by up to 53 percent, an annual spring ritual designed to stimulate demand for its premier PC chip...AMD followed Intel's lead, cutting prices from 17 percent to 52 percent for mobile Athlon XP chips and between 11 percent and 32 percent for desktop Athlon XP chips...The collapse of high-speed Internet provider Excite@Home cost employees thousands of jobs and shareholders millions of dollars, but it also offered auction deals to bargain hunters...For several years, Apple Computer's FireWire has been the leading means of providing high-speed connections between computers and digital devices, but fresh competition is forcing the company and other backers to rethink how they market the technology...Amazon.com is expanding its policy of paying commissions to its affiliate Web sites to include the sale of used goods.

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