Log: Brief reports and tidbits from the info-sphere

Write free software -- and write it off your tax bill?

Published December 15, 1998 11:38AM (EST)

Do free-spirited open
source software
developers need a tax break?

Carl Malamud thinks so. Malamud -- a veteran creator of
public-interest-oriented Internet projects like the 1996 Internet World's Fair -- has launched a
campaign for what he calls the "Hacker Tax Credit." In a letter to
Vice President Al Gore and several members of Congress earlier this week,
Malamud argued that Congress could ensure "a strategic national reserve of
open source software" by enacting tax rules that would allow developers of
any free software that's "used by at least 1,000 people" to count their
"development and operational costs" as tax deductions.

"It is a happy accident that we have open source software, but there are
simple steps that the federal government can take to provide even more fuel
for the growth of our information economy," Malamud wrote.

Of course, the nation's leaders may be a little preoccupied at the
moment. But Malamud, whose efforts in the
helped get the databases of both the Securities and Exchange
and the U.S.
Patent and Trademark Office
made available online, says he plans to
push the campaign throughout next year.

"I've chatted with a few members [of Congress] already and briefed some
White House staff and there is definitely interest," he says. "I don't give
up easily."
-- Scott

SALON | Dec. 18, 1998

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News-site servers cough on Iraqi bombing traffic

Everyone knows that when big news breaks, Web servers often do, too. So it wasn't a surprise that in the minutes after the announcement of the U.S. bombing of Iraq on Wednesday, some of the biggest news sites on the Web were swamped and ground to a temporary halt.

Operating-system mavens did note one potentially meaningful trend in the traffic: Both the MSNBC and ABC News sites were a lot harder to get through to than the CNN site.

As it happens, both MSNBC and ABC are using Windows NT-based servers; CNN relies on a version of Unix. As Microsoft escalates its campaign to convince businesses that NT is a rock-solid, "industrial strength" operating system, such real-world comparisons are not going to warm Bill Gates' heart.

-- Scott Rosenberg

SALON | Dec. 17, 1998

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Clinton satire in 3-D

Virtual Bill is back: The 3-D animated parody of President Clinton that debuted last year on MTV has returned for an encore. This time he's not only appearing on an MTV special Thursday, but as an interactive Web special -- and he's giving all the frank answers many Americans have been clamoring for.

The mock grand jury testimony online allows visitors to ask Virtual Bill a number of questions and choose several camera angles to view the digital president's responses (you can guess which angle the "Monica Cam" is from). The parody covers everything from accusations of "Wag the Dog"-style diversionary tactics to the attractions of thong underwear -- and the voice, face and mannerisms are dead-on.

Virtual Bill was created by a partnership: Animation house Protozoa designed the 3-D character, satire site The Onion wrote Bill's commentary and Pulse ported it to MTV's Web site using its new 3-D technology -- a svelte plug-in that utilizes streaming data to animate 3-D characters online (you'll need to download and install the plug-in to view Virtual Bill).

A sample rant from this virtual president: "Most of my time in the last five and a half years has been devoted to doing the job the American people gave me ... Only three hours, four hours tops, were spent having plump little honey pots go down on me. Five and a half years vs. four -- all right, five -- hours. You do the math."

-- Janelle Brown

SALON | Dec. 17, 1998

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Info war rages over impeachment e-mail

When the Censure and Move On group made it easy for Americans to make phone calls and send e-mail to Congress registering their anti-impeachment opinions, little did they suspect that they were giving a hand to the pro-impeachment contingent as well.

During the last week, Censure and Move On organized a toll-free phone line that could connect you for free to congressional offices, along with the swingvote@moveon.org mailer that would forward your message to several dozen key congressmen. But by the weekend, members of the ultra-conservative Free Republic bulletin boards had discovered that they could hijack the 800 number and e-mail forwarder to register their own anti-Clinton messages.

Not all "Freepers" agree with the tactics -- as Free Republic webmaster Jim Robinson bluntly says, "I don't think it's a good idea to use their number."
And no wonder: It seems that Move On is having the last laugh. Unless you're extremely careful, using Move On's petitions or e-mail system will automatically sign you up for the group's anti-impeachment petition -- which several irate Free Republic members discovered after receiving return e-mails from representatives thanking them for their anti-impeachment opinion.

-- Janelle Brown

SALON | Dec. 16, 1998

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Making the Net safe for the big labels

A humongous coalition of music and technology industry giants Tuesday announced a new, "open" standard for pirate-proofing music that's delivered online. The press conference announcing the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) also introduced a kindler, gentler Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) -- one that really just wants everyone to get along. The SDMI, coordinated by the RIAA, will bring together entertainment industry heavyweights (like Sony Music, Warner Music and BMG) with technology heavyweights (like AOL, AT&T, IBM and Microsoft) to devise the new standard, promised to be ready for use by fall 1999.

What's motivating these competitors to unite? The music industry is terrified by the meteoric explosion of security-free MP3 music files and online music piracy, and fears that it is losing control over the distribution, rights and profits from Net-based music. The new coalition will put the RIAA firmly at the helm of any inter-industry negotiations and music formats.

As RIAA president Hillary Rosen explained, "We are not here complaining about piracy. We are here today saying that in order for there to be new and varied distribution formats for music, there needs to be a security system. There is a piracy issue out there and we're handling it -- but this initiative is about creating opportunities, not complaining about losses."

Just to show what a happy family this new initiative would create, Rosen emphasized that all three major Web music formats -- Liquid Audio, a2b and MP3 -- would be represented at the table (MP3 will likely be represented by the Fraunhofer Institute, which holds patents on MP3 technology). Even Diamond Multimedia, currently suing and being sued by the RIAA because of its Rio MP3 player, plans to join the initiative. The standard will not, Rosen says, "create winners and losers"; all of these music formats will be able to incorporate the new security architecture, and will be supported by the record industry if they do so.

And if they don't? Rosen didn't say.

-- Janelle Brown

SALON | Dec. 16, 1998

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Crackdown on classic arcade-game lovers

For fans of the Net's emulation (or "emu") scene, where old video games
are resurrected for fun on today's computers, it's been a rough -- and
ominous -- few weeks.

The Interactive Digital
Software Association
(IDSA), the trade organization for the video and
computer games industry, recently stepped up its policing of Web sites that
freely distribute the source code to old arcade video games (in the form of
"ROM images" -- data from ROM chips dumped into software form). Threatened
with legal action over copyright violation, popular emu sites, such as Dave's Video Game
either quit providing ROMs or were shut down entirely by
their Internet service providers.

Emulation programs re-create, in software form, the hardware of arcade
machines, console video-game units or other video-game platforms. With a
given emu program, you can run and play classic arcade games, like the
original Ms. Pac-Man, on your computer. The most popular of the emu
programs is the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which, at current
count, can emulate more than 1,000 arcade games. Programmers of these pieces of
"virtual hardware" toil on their emulators with various motivations --
including the technical challenge and a love for old games -- and most give
away their creations for free on the Web.

But emulators alone don't do anything -- to play a game using an
emulator, you also need a ROM image of the game itself. The copyright
owners of the emulated arcade games have not targeted the emulators, per
se, but the free -- and brazen -- distribution of ROM images of their games
via the Web.

Many online fans of the emu scene have argued that emulation programming
is not about piracy but about preserving the history of video games and old
computer hardware formats. Without the scene, the majority of classic
arcade video games, most of which are not available for purchase in any
computer or video-game console format, would have disappeared into
oblivion. Under this logic, some emu Web sites gave the impression that
making available ROM images of old arcade games was, at the very least, not
as bad as distributing pirated versions of current software.

Not surprisingly, this argument never swayed the game companies.
Responding to e-mails it received regarding the shutdowns of Web sites
illegally distributing ROM images, the IDSA states on its own Web site,
"Just because a particular title is not currently for sale does not mean
that it will never be for sale. Tolerating the unauthorized distribution of
ROMs makes a product less valuable if and when the copyright owner wants
to re-release it or profit in some other way."

But the emu scene has moved beyond its origins of mere historic
preservation. Current emulators (including MAME) can run the ROM images of
more recent titles like Mortal Kombat -- games still found in video
arcades. This is just an indication of the growing sophistication of emu
programmers' talents. Programs fully emulating the Sony PlayStation console
are on the horizon (currently, they can successfully run about 60 percent
of the game titles available for this format). And, in perhaps a more
telling example of where the emu scene is headed, an emulator for
Nintendo's new GameBoy Color was distributed on the Web weeks before the
actual gadget was available for sale. Such advances are likely to bring
more scrutiny to the emu scene from the video-game companies.

As for "retrogamers" who would like to play emulated versions of arcade
classics on their computer while adhering to copyright law, current
options don't look promising: Microsoft's recently released Revenge of the
Arcade, which emulates Ms. Pac-Man along with four other classics, has been
widely panned for its slow emulation speed and bloated file size (it takes
up 36MB of hard disk space, compared to the less than 2MB that the same
five games and MAME take up together).

In its review of the product, Next Generation magazine offered a
sentiment most emu fans can probably relate to: "If this is what it means
to buy a legal emulator, we'd rather break the law."

-- Howard Wen

By Salon Tech Writers

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