May, 2019

Google set to woo music industry

According to a report from the Digital Hollywood trade show, held this year at the Lowes Hotel in Santa Monica, California, Google has invited 20 of the top executives in the music industry to a special conference.HangZhou Night Net

The agenda for the roundtable discussion is not publicly known, but many expect that it relates to Google’s possible entrance into the digital music download industry. Already, Google has entered the paid digital content realm with their Google Video service, which launched in January. Google Video allows users to download clips by content providers such as CBS, the NBA, Classic Media, and Sony BMG. Some clips are provided for free, others offer only a low-resolution preview and require payment to download a high-res version.

While the service had a bit of a lackluster launch, it has slowly improved since then. One of the precedents that Google Video sets is the idea of variable pricing: typically, prices range from $1.99 to $3.99 depending on the content. The reason this is important is that Apple’s iTunes Music Store (iTMS) has stuck with a single price for all songs, something the music industry apparently is not too happy with. Could Google be preparing a a variable-priced Google Music store? The company has officially denied such rumors, but Google has surprised us before.

Google may have other reasons for cozying up to content producers. Last month, the MPAA filed seven lawsuits against Torrentspy and other search web sites that offer easy ways to locate Bittorrent tracker files. In response, Torrentspy has argued that the MPAA might as well sue Google, since their search engine also allows users to locate these files (although Google searches tend to locate sites like Torrentspy first, unless one knows the exact file name of the tracker). While Google does not appear to be in any danger of being hit by a lawsuit by the MPAA or the RIAA, the company is surely interested in keeping on the content industry’s good side.

Could a theoretical Google Music Store have any real impact in the marketplace? In the past few years, online music stores have grown like mushrooms, yet the market continues to be almost completely dominated by the iTMS. Many have speculated that the reason for this is the popularity of the iPod, and the fact that purchased iTMS songs will only play on Apple’s music player (unless one goes through the process of burning to a CD and then converting the songs to a new format, which takes time and reduces quality). For a Google Music Store to be a success, it will have to offer the ability to sync up with a music player that many people are buying. Now where did I put my gPod?

A look at GNOME 2.14


Welcome back to Linux.Ars! Quite a bit has transpired in the world of open source software since the last edition. I don’t have any code for you folks this time around, but there is a lot of excellent stuff in the pipeline and you will hopefully see some of it on the front page of Ars Technica in the next few weeks. I’m putting together a complete Python/D-Bus tutorial that will include some examples that leverage Gaim 2.0 and libnotify among other things. I’m also working on putting together coverage of Red Hat’s big virtualization event. This time I’m going to be covering some assorted news items and exploring GNOME 2.14. As a special treat this month, I also have some comments written specifically for Linux.Ars by Mike Ferris, Red Hat director of security solutions, who talks about Red Hat’s approach to integrated security and SELinux.HangZhou Night Net

Talk backMike Ferris talks about Red Hat’s approach to integrated security

I have argued in the past that the challenges associated with making and maintaining SELinux configurations make leveraging the technology prohibitively difficult and costly, particularly for small businesses that don’t have a lot of resources or personnel for security and administration. As an alternative, I have suggested Novell’s AppArmor, which facilitates automatic generation of access control policies. In defense of SELinux, Red Hat director of security Mike Ferris offered to share Red Hat’s perspective on the matter:

As with the evolution of Linux itself and any active project, SELinux has evolved in the open source community to provide an exceptionally robust, flexible security infrastructure. In short, we’ve been focused on building the strongest foundation possible. This has been underway for many years with both the NSA and the open source community working together to ensure that SELinux provides the technical aspects of MDAC (mandatory access control), but does so in a way that ensure acceptance by the Linux kernel community today and in the future.

This phase of adoption is exceedingly important when working on technologies that are as close to the core assets of any platform, processes, and resources. As the community and vendors have seen with other critical technologies such as the threading models (NGPT and NPTL), virtualization architectures (UML and Xen), and even the audit subsystem (LAuS and "audit"), having upstream acceptance is imperative not only for the development of the platform, but also directly impacts application developers and customer deployments by giving them a trusted, consistent system on which they can base their current and future development. Yes, the open source community will continue to evolve SELinux to meet new requirements, but the core framework is now reliably set.

With Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora Core, and other Linux distributions now based on SELinux, the community has now moved onto the stage of protecting system space. Today, by default, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 protects core network facing processes such as Apache and SNMP, and these protections in turn secure any application—custom or third-party—which rely on those as their deployment framework. We will continue this process by extending capabilities of Enterprise Linux 5 with with better support for loadable modules, new and improved tools for building and debugging policy problems, and working with 3rd party ISV’s to protect certified Red Hat Enterprise Linux partner applications.

Regarding our overall focus on Security: we continue to be heavily invested in building the most secure environments our customers’ users, data, and applications as part of our "Security in a Networked World" initiative. This includes core Linux platform technologies such as SELinux and ExecShield; authorization and authentication technologies such as Red Hat Directory Server and Red Hat Certificate System; as well processes, services, and certifications for our offerings, our partners’ solutions and our customers’ deployments. Ultimately, Red Hat’s focus is to continue to deliver a secure platform that is ubiquitously deployed and easily managed such that a secure system is the only type of system.

Ferris draws attention to a number of very important points, but I think the most critical one relates to Red Hat’s relationship with the community. Ferris points out that SELinux has been developed with extensive community involvement and input in order to meet the needs and requirements of real community members and kernel developers. By comparison, Novell’s AppArmor was developed as a proprietary application in an entirely closed environment and was opened to the community later in life. Red Hat’s efforts to meet the needs of the community and act as a team player in addition to meeting customer demand are certainly laudable and quite likely relevant. To get Novell’s perspective, check out the AppArmor presentation from FOSDEM.

Red Hat’s tendency to promote community involvement and Novell’s habit of building behind closed doors have been a topic of discussion lately as users and developers compare Red Hat’s Aiglx compositing engine with Novell’s competing Xgl compositing engine. Now I’ll put the questions to readers. In your opinion, how relevant are factors like upstream support and commitment to the interests of the community? Do you think that using software initially developed in a proprietary environment puts Novell at a disadvantage? The Linux.Ars community wants to know what you think, so speak up in the discussion forum, or in the #linux channel on the Ars Technica IRC server.

Online political activity and campaign finance regulation: a tale of two bills

Yesterday’s approval of the FEC’s draft rules governing online political activity marked the end of a long and remarkably bipartisan period of grassroots activism on behalf of online freedom of speech. Activists and bloggers from both the left and the right, like Daily Kos’s Markos Zuniga and’s Mike Krempasky, joined forces on what seems to be the only issue under the sun on which they can agree: namely, that any extension of the FEC’s campaign finance regulation activity to the Internet is double-plus bad, or so the argument seems to go, and would spell doom for the future of American political life. The FEC has decided on its own, without the intervention of Congress, that the activists are largely right about this, but in spite of yesterday’s unanimous decision to let the Internet largely off the hook there still may be another chapter left in the ongoing story of the FEC’s relationship to online political activity. HangZhou Night Net

The aforementioned broad coalition of activists have been pushing HR 1606, the Online Freedom of Speech Act sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), as a way to ensure that the FEC would do pretty much what it did on Monday, and that’s leave most forms of Internet political activity alone. But according to the weekly floor report published by majority leader Majority Leader John Boehner, the much-delayed HR 1606 is still scheduled to go up for a vote tomorrow, March 29.

No doubt the folks at Red State are going to continue to support the bill, in spite of the FEC’s rule-making, because of what it does to campaign finance regulations (more on that below). I can’t find where they’ve stated as much, but I’d put money on it. Zuniga and Co., for their part, seem to be satisfied with the proposed rules and are calling on Congress to scrub tomorrow’s vote and simply affirm for the record that the FEC did the right thing.

It’s important to note that the FEC’s new rules are somewhat more restrictive than HR 1606. In fact, the FEC has adopted at least one measure that’s a component of a competing bill, HR 4900, the Internet Free Speech Protection Act drafted by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and sponsored by Reps. Tom Allen (D-ME) and Charles Bass (R-NH). I’m talking about the perfectly sensible rule that dictates that paid online advertising—y’know, banner ads that parties purchase in pretty much the exact same way they purchase already-regulated TV and radio ads—fall under the FEC’s regulatory purview.

In contrast to HR 4900, the Hensarling bill (HR1606) allows anyone to buy up online political advertising willy-nilly, with none of the regulatory oversight that accompanies the exact same kinds of ad purchases in print and broadcast media. At the very least, it’s a soft-money “loophole” that you could drive a Mack truck through, and at worst it’s a “poison pill” that would progressively nullify the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform (CFR) legislation as more advertising moves online.

So some CFR advocates are backing the CDT bill (HR 4900), which is more complex than HR 1606 because it tries to “translate” CFR regulation into the online sphere, instead of declaring such regulation obsolete and inapplicable to online activity. This means that the bill has more moving parts, making it harder to vet. HR 4900 will therefore take longer to attract the kind of advocacy that the much more straightforward HR 1606 currently enjoys.

Among the pro-CFR folks on the rightward side of the spectrum, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norm Ornstein argues in favor of the bill in a Roll Call article published earlier this month (scroll to the bottom):

[H.R. 4900] makes sure that bloggers are not caught inadvertently in the campaign finance regulatory apparatus, while blocking the re-entry of soft money by unions, corporations and state parties to attack or promote federal candidates. Under their bill, bloggers would be eligible for the media exemption from campaign finance laws.

Beyond the bloggers, Allen-Bass allows individuals to purchase up to US$5,000 in Internet ads to promote or attack candidates without having to file FEC reports or worry about coordination rules. It also allows groups of individuals to operate Web sites designed to influence federal elections without being labeled as political committees under the law, so long as they spend less than US$10,000.

Their goal, obviously, is to allow freewheeling discourse without bringing back big soft money. That is why it is the preferred vehicle of responsible voices in the blogging and Internet community. Bloggers need protection, and the Internet needs to stay free. Allen-Bass accomplishes the central goal without the pernicious effects.

I have to say, I read through HR 4900 and it’s not at all clear to me that the $5,000 and $10,000 limits work like Ornstein says they work. The language seems to be very general and applicable to just about anyone with a stated political opinion who spends enough money on site hosting, but that could be because the sections dealing with those monetary limits are amendments to a previous bill and they should be read in the context of the original language. I do, however, trust the CDT that the bill won’t ruin any blogger whose site budget goes over $10,000, but I would like to see more reactions to the bill from the allegedly pro-CFR folks who supported HR 1606.

Such vetting may never happen, though, because the plan at the moment is to try to bring HR 4900 to the floor as an alternative to HR 1606, so that House members will have the option of voting for one or the other. I doubt seriously that HR 4900 will see a vote in this session, but it’s always possible that it could make its way onto the floor at a later date. There’s no reason why lawmakers couldn’t eventually consider it even if HR 1606 passes tomorrow.

In conclusion, if you’re a supporter of CFR (as I am), then you’ll probably want to hope for one of two outcomes: a) HR 1606 gets canned, or b) HR 1606 passes, but then HR 4900 (or some equivalent) also passes eventually. If you’re an opponent of CFR, then you’ll want the House to go ahead and pass HR 1606, regardless of what the FEC has ruled.

eBay patent case arrives at Supreme Court

It all begins with a patent. A patent, it seems, can potentially cover just about anything, from sunglass frames with fake Elvis sideburns, to the cotton gin, to a button on a web page. In the latter case, that little button has caused eBay quite a bit of trouble. On Wednesday, the case will be argued before the US Supreme Court, and what the court decides could alter the way patent infringement cases are handled in the US, especially as far as injunctions are concerned.HangZhou Night Net

At the core of the matter are a couple of somewhat minor patents filed for in 1995 by a small company called MercExchange. MercExchange was an early online auction company that failed to make much impact in the marketplace, and by 2000 it had closed its auctions down. At around the same time, MercExchange was finally granted the patent for both online auctions and a direct-buy system, which involved logging onto their web site and purchasing an item for a fixed price. eBay users will probably recognise direct-buy as being very similar to their Buy It Now feature on that site.

In June 2000, eBay began negotiations with MercExchange to license their patents. Talks broke down however, and eBay kept on doing its thing. In September 2001, MercExchange filed suit against the auction giant, and a lower court found that their patents had indeed been infringed to the tune of US$25 million. Several appeals later, MercExchange and eBay find themselves ascending the steps of the Supreme Court. Although the online auction patent has been thrown out, the direct-buy patent has been upheld, and MercExchange is seeking an injunction against eBay to prevent that company from using Buy It Now until it either licenses the patent from MercExchange or finds a workaround.

eBay claims that it has already instituted a noninfringing workaround, but since it’s really the concept of Buy It Now that MercExchange claims is the problem, it remains to be seen how the court will rule on that topic. eBay is concerned that the granting of an injunction will hurt the company financially, and argues that there is little reason for MercExchange to need such an action when it no longer runs auctions. For their part, MercExchange points out that they do license the patent to other auction sites, which could potentially be harmed by eBay’s continued offering of Buy It Now.

Deserved or undeserved, the patent is no longer the key issue. If the Supreme Court allows an injunction to be granted against eBay—and there is strong precedent for doing so—MercExchange will essentially be able to name its own price for licensing direct-buy back to the auction company. Buy It Now has grown to become a very popular feature of the site, and eBay will be forced into a "pay up or else" negotiating position. Keep in mind that it was merely the threat of an injunction that led to the US$612.5 million settlement in the recent Blackberry case.

On the other hand, should the Supreme Court side with eBay, a new precedent will be put into place—one in which patent infringement will no longer automatically lead to the granting of an injunction. Should that happen, the manner in which all infringement cases are handled will change, and critics say too much power will be granted to the infringing parties.

For that reason, the case is being closely watched in many quarters, and friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed on behalf of both sides by players as diverse as software companies and the pharmaceutical industry.

The stakes are huge for American business, says Todd Dickinson, a vice president in charge of intellectual property matters for General Electric and a former head of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office: "You could even say it’s the most important commercial law case before the Supreme Court so far this century."

Given its importance, and the fact that this decision will be arriving after the recent changes in the makeup of the Court, this is certainly a case to keep your eye on. However, a judgement isn’t expected for several months, so you can avoid the edge of your seat for a little while.

YouTube caps video lengths to reduce infringement

You may already know all about YouTube. Founded a year ago, YouTube has become a prime online destination for streaming video entertainment. It has also become a prime destination for copyright infringement, as many of the videos uploaded are video captures of copyrighted material originally shown on television. This makes the copyright holders upset from time to time, and they start sending threatening letters. NBC demanded that YouTube stop hosting "Lazy Sunday," a rap video spoof done by Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg. The clip originally aired in December, but it a was captured and uploaded to YouTube without NBC’s authorization. It was an online hit.HangZhou Night Net

Within the halls of the Temple of Web 2.0, YouTube is a victim. It has been argued that the people-powered nature of the site should lead copyright holders to realize YouTube’s promotional potential. But as a company that’s being built for acquisition (few, I doubt, believe otherwise), idealism isn’t enough to convince deep pockets. What exactly is YouTube’s business model? If Jason Calacanis is to be believed, YouTube isn’t even a "real business," but a "silly, little business that anyone could setup in a week." It’s built on piracy, he argues, and that’s not a business model.

Without a doubt, the copyright infringement problem at YouTube is significant, and the company is trying to address it. This week they have announced a new "Premium Content Program" aimed at reducing the amount of pirated material on their site. The program creates a new level of membership that is required for users who wish to post video that are longer than 10 minutes in length.

"[I]f you’ve followed our blog postings or any of the press articles, you know we’re constantly trying to balance the rights of copyright owners with the rights of our users," the company said in a statement. "We did some analysis of the videos in our system over 10 minutes in length, and we found the overwhelming majority of them were full length, copyrighted videos from tv shows and movies. However, we also recognize that there are legit content creators out there who may have videos over 10 mins, so we’ve created a Premium Content Program for those of you with professional-produced videos."

Clearly the hope is that the 10-minute limitation will result in most TV shows and other longer programs staying off of YouTube. Will the free-wheelin’ copyright infringement come to a close? It’s doubtful, because a 10 minute limitation doesn’t really stop people from uploading unauthorized content. After all, Napoleon Dynamite is 82 minutes long, and YouTube is packed with ripped scenes and satires, a good portion of which are not examples of fair use. But now, YouTube is giving it the old college try. The popularity of the site doesn’t hinge on the portion of its contents that derive from infringement, but a YouTube sans TV and movie clips is a different YouTube than some of its users are used to.

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