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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 01, 2007 0 comments
A bipartisan group is pushing new federal legislation that would chip away at the worst abuses of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act--the law often cited by the Recording Industry Antichrist of America in its "legal" campaign against consumers. The Freedom and Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship Act, also known as the Fair Use Act, is sponsored by Reps. Rick Boucher (D-VA) and John Doolittle (R-CA). It would allow audiovisual compilations for classroom use, commercial skipping, home networking, library archiving, and access to works in the public domain or those "of substantial public interest solely for purposes of criticism, comment, news, reporting, scholarship, or research." It would also give manufacturers some wiggle room, eliminating statutory damages for those who unwittingly aid others who commit copyright infringement, and shoring up the 1984 Betamax Decision by sanctioning devices "capable of substantial, commercially-significant non-infringing use." Critics say the bill does not go as far as Boucher's attempts in previous legislative seasons. They point out that while the acts listed above are sanctioned, the tools that perform them are not. The RIAA condemned the bill claiming it would "repeal the DMCA and legalize hacking." And the Consumer Electronics Association praised it, saying it would "reinforce the historical fair use protections" of existing law.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 28, 2007 0 comments
An unexpected legal snafu may have makers of music players and ripping software shelling out bigtime for MP3 or possibly even abandoning the popular audio codec. At the heart of the storm is Alcatel-Lucent, a networking-equipment company and heir to the legacy of Bell Labs. Alcatel claims that Bell brought two key patents to the table when Bell joined the Fraunhofer Institute of Germany and Thomson of France in developing the MP3 format as the audio soundtrack of the now-forgotten MPEG-1 video standard. This claim is a surefire money maker. Alcatel has already persuaded the federal district court of San Diego to hit Microsoft with $1.52 billion in damages for the use of MP3 in the Windows Media Player. That's half a percentage point of the value of all Windows PCs sold. Ironically, WMP didn't begin supporting MP3 till 2004 with Version 10; before that MP3 ripping was a third-party plug-in. Microsoft will appeal, arguing that one of the two disputed patents does not apply to WMP and the other was covered when Gates & Co. paid Fraunhofer $16 million to license MP3. Before you get all giggly and anti-Redmondian, consider the fact that iTunes also offers MP3 ripping, and that iTunes purchases in AAC account for only a tiny percentage of all iPod-stored content. If Steve Jobs wants to keep his gravy train rolling, he'll have to fork over too. As will every purchaser of every MP3-compatible product. Pray for Microsoft.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 27, 2007 0 comments
A major advantage of HD DVD over Blu-ray has diminished with Sony's announcement yesterday of the BDP-S300 at $599. True, it's still not quite as good a deal as the Toshiba HD-XA2 at $499. Moreover, the lowered price is not unprecedented. Sony has already been offering Blu-ray via the PS3 consoles for $499 and $599. But for non-gamers with an achingly empty space in the component rack, the new Blu-ray player costs significantly less than the BDP-S1 at $999. And, unlike the pricier player, the BDP-S300 plays CDs. Sony's latest move puts Blu-ray in a better position, building on the title-releasing momentum that may enable Blu-ray to surpass HD DVD's software sales this year.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 26, 2007 0 comments
Reading patent applications provides happy bloggers with ample fodder for blue-sky speculation. I rarely report these what-ifs for the same reason that I avoid Japanese new-product introductions: it may not happen, or it may not happen here. But the San Jose Mercury News uncovered an especially interesting what-if in an Apple patent application several months back, one that may affect the user interface of the iPod—revered by many as the Michelangelo's David of industrial design. Reporter Troy Wolverton explains: "The company had previously explored replacing the click wheel with a virtual one as part of a touch-sensitive display." As it has with the iPhone, touching off speculation. "But now," Wolverton continues, "Apple appears to be looking at a third option: a touch-sensitive frame surrounding the display. Rather than click a physical button or press a virtual one on the screen, users would touch an area on the frame to operate their iPod." Needless to say, Apple didn't return the reporter's calls, and this cataclysmic ergonomic shift may never happen.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 23, 2007 0 comments
My birthday's coming!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 22, 2007 0 comments
Sawbones who play video games regularly are 37 percent less likely to make a mistake when doing something in your gut with a pointed object, according to a survey of surgeons at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Of 33 surgeons who participated in the study, nine had played video games for at least three hours in the preceding week, and 15 had never played them at all. Those nine were golden: Not only did they make fewer errors, they also performed 27 percent faster, and scored 42 percent higher in a surgical-skills test. The technique in question is laparoscopic surgery, in which a video camera on a stick is inserted into the patient's body, allowing for smaller incisions for the other sharp objects and less invasive procedures overall. "It's like tying your shoelaces with three-foot-long chopsticks," says the author of the study, Dr. James "Butch" Rosser. Yup, he's a gamer: "I use the same hand-eye coordination to play video games as I use for surgery." Maybe we shouldn't worry so much about video-game violence. This guy's itchy trigger finger is saving lives.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 21, 2007 0 comments
A draft report circulating at the Federal Communications Commission claims Congress can regulate violent television content without violating the First Amendment. Interesting fact: Under the Constitution, it is the Supreme Court, not the FCC, that makes such judgments. According to chairperson Kevin Martin, "there is strong evidence that shows violent media can have an impact on children's behavior and there are some things that can be done about it." Sitting alongside Martin, a Republican, was ranking Democrat Michael Copps: "This is not a red state or a blue state issue," he said. Of the remaining three commissioners, one sides with Martin and Copps, and the other two haven't officially taken a position, giving the pro-censorship bloc a potential 3-2 majority. Even Tony Soprano may not be safe from these guys. Martin wants to exert influence on the cable and satellite networks as well. On the bright side, he wants to do it by giving consumers a chance to buy channels "a la carte," an idea the cable industry has long opposed.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 20, 2007 0 comments
What's interesting about the proposed merger of the XM and Sirius satellite radio operations is that their licenses, issued by the Federal Communications Commission, specifically prohibit one company from owning both networks. A press release lists benefits of the monopoly as more program choices, advanced tech innovation, enhanced hardware offerings for OEM and retail partners, better financial performance, and more competitiveness. Some of these claims are more credible than others. Will combining the two result in more choices for listeners--or will overlapping programs eventually be cut? How exactly will the removal of competition spur technology? And the big question, of course: Will the FCC provide conclusive proof of incompetence and/or corruption by saying yes to a monopoly and destroying competition in satellite radio?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 16, 2007 0 comments
From Sonos to Apple's AirPort Express, there are lots of ways to get music from a PC hard drive to a home theater system. One of them is Logitech's Wireless DJ Music System. It does not have all the features of Logitech's recently acquired Slim Devices line, including the latter's versatile connectivity and support for lossless formats. But it is simpler and a little less costly. It's also more functional than Logitech's step-down move, the Wireless Music System for PC, and has a far more functional remote control.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 15, 2007 1 comments
By now it should be no surprise that HDTV unit sales doubled in the fourth quarter of 2006 compared to 4Q 2005. What might lift an eyebrow is that a third of those bright shiny new HDTVs were 1080p models, according to Pacific Media Associates. Just six months earlier, 1080p had accounted for only five percent of HDTV sales. What a change half a year of hype can make. For the alphanumerically disinclined, "1080p" refers to displays that show 1920 by 1080 pixels with the entire picture drawn one full frame at a time. Back when guys delivered chunks of ice to cool cordless refrigerators, analog television began using an interlacing process that scanned each frame in two passes, and this process still survives, sort of like the coccyx. However, some experts point out that paying a premium for 1080p may not be a wise decision. Notes our video editor Geoff Morrison: "From where most people sit, you don't need 1080p in a 37-42 inch TV. It's arguable that you do in a 50-inch set." Deal of the month: Buy one Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1 50-inch plasma, get one free. Next big thing: the 120Hz refresh rate.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 14, 2007 0 comments
There are ordinary mortals who throw Super Bowl parties. And then there is Pete Putman, occasional Home Theater contributor and the HDTV expert of hdtvexpert.com. He put the big game on nine different screens scattered throughout the house (and one outside it). So whose display chugged away in sub-freezing weather? Which had pride of place in Pete's workshop theater? How did the portable pocket projector do? And whose screen was featured in the bathroom, "positioned at an angle to viewers at the door, the sink, and on the throne"? Check out the fully illustrated story for yourself.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 13, 2007 0 comments
Hot on the heels of Wal-Mart Video Downloads, Amazon is looking to attract more customers to its Unbox service by teaming up with TiVo. Currently in beta, "Amazon Unbox on TiVo" would allow owners of Series2 or -3 TiVos to download and play Unbox videos. Sorry, Series1 and DirecTV TiVo owners can't participate. Besides the TiVo, you'll also need an Amazon account, and you'll need to link it to your TiVo account. A movie download will take anywhere from an hour (with broadband) to five hours (with dial-up). Your downloads will appear on the TiVo's now-playing list. They will not work with the TiVoToGo or multi-room features, but you can download to other devices using Unbox RemoteLoad. More details from Amazon or TiVo.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 12, 2007 2 comments
Just in case you've been living in a cave for the past week--or perhaps just live a normal healthy life, in which case I envy you--then you've heard about the Steve Jobs DRM manifesto. Jobs wants to have his DRM and denounce it too. His adroit repositioning of himself in the public eye bodes well for the continued vigor of iPod sales. The first and most amusing reaction came from the Recording Industry Antichrist of America, which enthused: "Apple's offer to license FairPlay to other technology companies is a welcome breakthrough and would be a real victory for fans, artists and labels." It would also mollify various European regulators who object to the binding of iTunes downloads to iPods. Only problem is, Apple offered to do no such thing. The emailed missive has not appeared on the RIAA site. More relevant, perhaps, was EMI's announcement that a large percentage of its catalogue would become available via no-DRM MP3 downloads. Apparently the Norah Jones experiment was a success. Warning: While MP3 is immune to DRM, it is not immune to watermarking that would embed purchase information in the track metadata. If a download with your name on it ends up in the P2P moshpit, you could be in big trouble.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 09, 2007 1 comments
Following threats from the National Football League, the Fall Creek Baptist Church of Indianapolis was forced to cancel its Super Bowl Bash, triggering a wave of cancellations in churches across the country. The Indianapolis church party would have involved a 12-foot projection system. No more than 55 inches are permissible, said the NFL, and you can't charge admission. However, the NFL admitted making exceptions for sports bars, leading to an interesting situation: If you're serving jello shots to the demimonde, you're an honored member of the NFL audience, but if you're serving tuna casseroles to raise money for new altar decorations, you're a copyright criminal. The initial news report from the Indianapolis Star brought the newspaper more than 1000 emails and 100 phone calls. Fall Creek's senior pastor, Dr. John Newland, thanked his church's supporters and offered "heartfelt congratulations" to both the Colts and the Bears. Meanwhile columnist Dan Carpenter had a field day: "Forgive us, Football, for we have sinned, and we beseech Thee to show mercy and not visit a pestilence of lawyers upon us. Nor forsake us when we seek to prepare our house for your XLV Coming.... Yea, verily, a state that prides itself on praying in public and legislating chastity got a revelatory taste last week of what America's true religion is.... The bald presumption! To raise a craven [sic] image on the big screen of the holiest occasion on the nation's calendar without a dispensation from on high?! Who do these people think they are, Hooters?" Unfortunately, few of the many commentaries noted that the jaw-droppingly lucrative telecast, festooned with multi-million-dollar ads, occurred over the public airwaves, which are owned by the public and regulated in the public interest. Since when has the NFL usurped the function of the FCC?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Feb 08, 2007 1 comments
What's remarkable about Wal-Mart's just-unveiled Video Downloads is not that America's number one retailer is venturing into online distribution of movies and teevee. The real story is that Wal-Mart has convinced all six major motion picture studios and at least some of the networks to pour a total of 3000 titles into the fledgling service. Wal-Mart tells you how to enjoy its downloads on TV, PC, or portable player. Pricing ranges from $1.96 for a TV episode to $19.88 for a fresh movie title. Shop around and you'll find movie titles well under the maximum. For example, Rugrats Go Wild for a mere $7.50. Still, even that's not much of a bargain compared to your basic Blockbuster movie rental fee of less than $5--so much for the "always low prices" slogan. Moreover, there's no mention of HD, compatible portables do not include iPods, and Wal-Mart's web developer is guilty, guilty, guilty of a major gaffe: The service seems to have been optimized for Internet Explorer (I used version 7). In Firefox 1.5, it's an unusable mess. Any Safari or Opera users having trouble with this page? Let me know. In fairness, the service is in beta, and improvements may follow.

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