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Read B4UCopy: software industry targets students with antipiracy site

Nearly everyone in the US is familiar with those cheesy MPAA ads sometimes shown in movie theaters: "You wouldn't steal a car. You wouldn't steal a handbag. You wouldn't steal a television. You wouldn't steal a DVD. Pirating downloaded films is stealing!" They are supposed to remind viewers that piracy is bad and deter them from going home to download a high-res copy of the movie they're about to watch. While it's unclear whether the MPAA's ad campaign has caused any significant reduction in piracy, software makers want to get in on the action anyway. The Business Software Alliance—which represents a number of well-known software companies like Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Intel, Adobe, Symantec, McAfee, and others—has launched its own ad campaign this week, aimed toward college students, called B4UCopy. Get it? B4… yeah. HangZhou Night Net

The BSA actually appears to have taken into consideration how college students think (on some level) when creating B4UCopy. Instead of putting a huge emphasis on how software piracy hurts the software industry, it only makes a slight mention of the losses they suffer due to piracy. Instead, the site puts a much larger focus on how students themselves might be hurt by piracy—how does it affect them? Students might be duped by getting defective or outdated software, burned by software that turns out to contain viruses or steal personal information, "bounced" by being locked out of their college or university networks, "booted" by eligible employers if they are caught pirating software, and busted with jail time or heavy fines, says the BSA.

Of course, no anti-piracy campaign would be complete without an educational video about the consequences of software piracy. The B4UCopy video contains observations from poor college kids on why they pirate, a testimonial from an emotion-ridden student who was arrested for piracy just before college graduation, and other testimonials from law enforcement and software makers.

"Many students say they don't realize they are doing anything wrong when they illegally download computer software or swap copyrighted digital files with their classmates," said BSA VP of public affairs Diane Smiroldo in a statement. "In reality, these students are stealing and breaking the law, which could have serious repercussions on their future."

The BSA says that, according to a recent survey of 1,052 college and university students, over half of students who say they have downloaded unlicensed software have experienced "negative consequences" after doing so. Some of those consequences include an increase in spyware and viruses (55 percent), hard drive crashes (20 percent), and file loss (18 percent).

The BSA claimed in 2006 that the software industry lost $34 billion due to piracy worldwide. We weren't alone in pointing out the problems with that figure, however, nothing that the method that the BSA and IDC used to calculate those numbers were based on the estimated retail value of pirated software. In order to accurately calculate losses, the organizations would have to guess at how much software is pirated, how much would have been purchased had it not been pirated, and what the relationship of legit sales to pirated installations is. Clearly, even the software industry isn't entirely sure how much is actually being lost to piracy.

Will the BSA's new campaign make a dent in software piracy among college students? It might, if it's able to emphasize some of the more immediate risks such as viruses and spyware. Anecdotally, I know several (perhaps not-so-bright) students whose PCs have been subject to virus takeovers so bad that they had to resort to reformatting their entire hard drives, thus losing everything on them. It was enough to scare a few of them straight, so the BSA might have some luck. Then again, being told about the consequences never quite drives the point home as hard as experiencing them firsthand.

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Copyright lawyer tells universities to resist “copyright bullies”

Wendy Seltzer, the founder of the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse and a former EFF staff attorney, gave a talk yesterday at Cornell (RealPlayer required) on "Protecting the University from Copyright Bullies." The bullies in question are the RIAA, and the issue is the recording industry's current campaign of both litigation and political pressure. Should universities assist the music industry in identifying the "pirates," or should they do everything in their power to resist? HangZhou Night Net

The title of Seltzer's talk gives the game away. She believes that the mission of the university is to promote academic freedom, research, the testing of boundaries, and the learning of personal responsibility by students and researchers. An open network facilitates such things; one that is filtered and used to watch the activities of its users does not, in her view, produced the sorts of effects that universities want.

The campus has become the latest battleground in the war on file-sharing. The RIAA has taken its fight to the halls of Congress, where it recently failed to secure some legislation that would have required colleges and universities to implement content filtering solutions on their networks and would direct the government to produce a list of the top 25 infringing schools. "Why Congress should be getting into the business of naming names and pointing fingers is beyond me," Seltzer said.

The idea was shot down, but the RIAA has also embarked on an aggressive plan to sue thousands of college students into submission this year, and that plan continues to move forward. Universities, including Cornell, now routinely receive "pre-litigation" letters from the RIAA that contain only an IP address. The group wants universities to pass these letters on to students. The letters offer students the possibility of a several thousand dollars settlement or the more expensive alternative of going to court. If the letters don't produce a response, the RIAA then files a "John Doe" lawsuit and obtains a subpoena to force the university to turn over the student information (some of these subpoenas were recently quashed on technical grounds). Once that happens, a specific lawsuit is filed against the student.

Seltzer hopes to encourage universities to start challenging these tactics, especially challenging the subpoenas on the ground that they pose an "undue burden" to the university. While cost is certainly one factor here, the "burden" that Seltzer is primarily talking about is the effect that complying with the subpoenas has on the university's mission.

In her view, it makes universities take a stand as an adversary of students, since they are forced to turn over personal information shared with them only for reasons of education. It also curtails the openness of the university's network.

One questioner asked whether the issue wasn't complicated by the fact that students also live at the university; that is, the users of the network aren't simply doing academic research, and massive copyright infringement is no doubt going on at most universities. Seltzer responded by pointing out that universities already deal with legal and law enforcement issues on a regular basis, and they generally do so without tracking or monitoring their students. For instance, underage drinking can be a problem on most campuses, but few or no schools install cameras or other devices to detect underage drinkers. Part of letting students grow up, she said, was taking a step back.

Normally, that would also mean letting students pay the penalty for their mistakes, but Selzer doesn't believe that it is fair for a few students to be singled out for such draconian penalties while nothing happens to the vast majority of their peers. In addition to the severity of the statutory penalties for copyright infringement, there are the well-known evidentiary problems of linking an IP address to an individual.

It's an interesting talk for those on both sides of the debate, but especially for those in university administration across the country who have to confront these issues on a daily basis.

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Consumer group blasts binding arbitration clauses

The fine print associated with service agreements from credit card, wireless phone, Internet access, and other service contracts is increasingly likely to includes a clause that removes contract disputes from the legal system, subjecting them instead to binding arbitration. Superficially, arbitration sounds like a great way to settle disagreements while avoiding the fees and animosity associated with legal action; arbitrators ostensibly offer an impartial decision quickly and painlessly. But a report (PDF) issued by the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen portrays the process as heavily slanted towards business, and a Kafkaesque nightmare for individuals. HangZhou Night Net

The report was triggered by the fact that California, alone among the states, compels the law firms that handle arbitration rulings to list the results of their decisions. Public Citizen downloaded each individual decision made by the firm National Arbitration Forum during the period from 2003 to 2007 and performed a statistical analysis on the outcomes. The results provide a revealing window into the arbitration process.

Arbitration is apparently used largely as a debt collection mechanism and is almost uniformly triggered by the service providers. Of the 34,000 cases examined, all but 15 involved debt collection, and only 118 were instigated by consumers. Given the high levels of consumer debt, a high rate of success might be expected, but the study found that companies prevailed in a startling 95 percent of the cases. The records also suggest that very little care goes into many of these decisions, as it documents a number of cases where arbitrators decided over 50 cases in a single day, with the consumer losing in all of them.

These data do not appear to be a California aberration; a court case involving the NAF and First USA Bank in Alabama revealed that the credit card issuer prevailed in over 19,900 out of 20,000 cases there. The report also details anecdotal cases where people were hit with adverse rulings by arbitrators despite evidence of fraud, identity theft, and even mistaken identity.

More compelling is Public Citizen's description of the arbitration process, which goes a long way towards explaining the skewed statistics. As the instigators of the process, corporations can choose the firm that performs the arbitration, and can shop for those that have provided the most favorable outcomes in the past. They also have the option of rejecting the initial choice of arbitrators, allowing those with pro-consumer records to be screened out. Both the firms and individual arbitrators are paid on a per-case basis, and thus are under pressure to ensure they are viewed favorably by companies.

Consumers, in contrast, have very few rights. Arbitration can proceed provided the company has attempted to notify the individual; actual consumer awareness of the proceedings appears to be optional. There are also fees at nearly every stage of the process, including a fee simply to have a hearing on the dispute or to see the ruling itself. Having the reasoning behind the decision spelled out requires a fee paid in advance of the actual decision. Appeal options are limited, and even a flawed initial ruling isn't grounds for reversal. Finally, arbitration doesn't allow individuals to pool resources through class action status.

Given how the deck appears to be stacked, why would anyone ever agree to mandatory arbitration? In many cases, it's simply a matter of ignorance of the risks involved; the report includes a list of steps to take to avoid entering into a contract that includes mandatory arbitration. But in some instances, such as Internet or phone access, consumers may have few options and find these clauses hard to avoid. As a long term solution, Public Citizen urges support for the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2007 (PDF), which amends existing laws to limit binding arbitration to cases where the two parties have equal power within existing contracts.

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Joost quietly slips 1.0 beta out the door for Mac (and Windows)

The Joost team has finally released version 1.0 (beta) of the P2P video software this fine, fourth Friday of September, which brings along with it a new "spoon" UI. As detailed on the (unofficial) Joost Team Blog (apparently not written by the devs), the interface is no longer black, but instead sports a transparent gray. If this was Apple, the color change would already be labeled as a feature. HangZhou Night Net

More interesting than the gray, however, is the completely redesigned Channel Guide. It's been renamed to "Explore" and animates out a list of available categories to choose from. This looks much nicer than the old Channel Guide, but as the blog post points out, people who are used to accomplishing certain tasks quickly may have trouble doing so with the new UI. Adding and deleting new channels from your own stored list of channels seems to be particularly difficult—"It is almost as if the interface is 75% done and is lacking 25% of it’s functionality," writes the Joost Team Blog.

Officially, the Joost for Mac release notes say that the 1.0 beta is more tolerant of bad network connections, and will continue to retry broken streams before the actual video stalls. A few other updates have been made to the way rewind and forward, age warnings, and advertisement overlays are handled, among other things.

The 1.0 beta is actually available for both Mac OS X and Windows. If you've become a Joost fan, this should be a welcome update (I'm downloading it as we speak), although the service is still invite-only. There are tons of invites floating around these days though, so if you're curious about Joost, just ask a few of your Internet buddies to hook you up.

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Human genetic diversity through chromosome structure

A few years ago, people were focusing on the lack of human genetic diversity. At the level of individual DNA bases, any two humans were well over 99 percent identical. With the completion of the human genome, however, researchers have been able to detect differences in the structure of the chromosomes themselves, including deletions, extra material, and other changes. An early access publication in Science describes the most detailed search yet for these changes. HangZhou Night Net

The study used a clever method of getting increased size resolution while allowing the detection of a greater variety of changes compared to prior work. The researchers fragmented human chromosomes in a way that all the fragments should be close to a single, average size (3kb, in this case). The ends of these fragments were sequenced, and the sequenced matched with the existing human genome. If the two matches weren't 3kb apart, the researchers knew that there was some sort of difference. Using this method allowed them to identify hundreds of chromosomal changes with an average difference of about 650 bases.

They performed the study using DNA from two individuals, and found that they had 761 and 887 structural variations (SVs) compared to the reference human genome. The subjects are of African and European origin, but half of these SVs were present in both of them, suggesting that some of them might be older than the human species itself. Most SVs were fairly small—a third were less than 5kb long—but about 17 percent appear likely to affect gene activity, as they eliminate coding regions and fuse or flip portions of a gene. Basic metabolic genes were rarely affected, with immune and olfactory proteins being the most commonly altered.

Overall, the researchers estimate that, combined, these structural differences change more DNA than all the single base changes combined. So, it turns out that the human population is probably over twice as diverse as originally expected, at least on the DNA level.

Science, 2007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1149504

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Researchers suggest iPods are the cause of an “iCrime wave”

You've heard it all before: iPods are high-theft items, and there has allegedly been an increase in crime as a result of the proliferation of our favorite white (or black… or aluminum anodized in our favorite colors) devices. But there hasn't been much data on the possible phenomenon, just anecdotal evidence and a few police reports here and there. The Urban Institute hopes to throw its own data into the mix, though, with a new report suggesting that rising crime rates may in fact be linked to iPods. HangZhou Night Net

The Urban Institute says that iPods' "high value, visibility, and versatility make them 'criminogenic'—or 'crime-creating,' in the vocabulary of criminologists." Researchers John Roman and Aaron Chalfin say that robberies rose in both 2005 and 2006, while overall theft actually declined during the same time period. According to Roman and Chaflin, the iPod's popularity make it a "special target" for juvenile offenders. "Indeed youth robbery arrests jumped 11 percent in 2005 and 21 percent in 2006," they wrote.

The 15-page paper (PDF) goes on to mention that, during the first three months of 2005, major felonies in the NYC subways increased by 18 percent—excluding iPod and cell phone thefts, however, felonies actually declined by three percent. (Let's just pretend like we didn't see that "and cell phone" part, I guess?).

The authors admit, however, that the "iCrime wave" may wane due to the ever-increasing ubiquitousness of the iPod. "Many of those who covet one likely already have one," reads the research paper. The correlation between the two is certainly intriguing, but it will likely be hard for some to accept that the iPod may actually be the cause of such crime spikes. We'll let you be the judge on that one.

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Study: Consumers ditching landlines for iPhone, other smartphones

The iPhone is arguably a jack of many trades that does most of them well, but a new study from Consumer Insights suggests that many American consumers are adding "landline replacement" to their list of favorite iPhone features. HangZhou Night Net

Funded by mobile phone retailer Wireless Toyz, MacNN reports the study found a significant boost in sales of feature-rich wireless handsets like the BlackBerry, Treo, Q and Chocolate. The iPhone is apparently leading the pack according to the study (though iSuppli likely disagrees), primarily due to its rich (though not outdone) feature set finally striking a chord with consumers. As to why the iPhone is getting nods for finally getting through to consumers, our guess is that it could be due to the way the phone has been presented and advertised; after all, when was the last time you saw a mobile phone ad that featured nothing but a hand actually using various features of the phone?

Considering how the home phone industry has not exactly innovated much in the midst of the exploding mobile phone industry, we aren't entirely surprised to see feature-packed mobile phones inspiring even more consumers to give their landline telcos the boot. The mobile phone industry is maturing and so are the handsets, offering more powerful features, (arguably) polished UIs, and an expanding army of services with which to accessorize. "Kuperstein" of Wireless Toyz also highlights the fact that this new interest in powerful mobile phones signifies a shift in consumer interest from cost to features when purchasing a mobile phone, which is exactly the kind of customer Apple designs for. The iPhone may never have survived even a couple years ago, in the age when free phones and multi-colored, flashing neon light batteries reigned supreme with consumers.

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Friday afternoon Apple links, O.J. Simpson edition

I know you've all missed my shining wit and charm over the past week, but luckily, it's Friday afternoon. Friday afternoon means fresh-squeezed Friday links and Apple tidbits. Now, I'm not saying I posted these, but if I had, here's how I would have posted them: HangZhou Night Net

Apple is no stranger to being on the receiving end of lawsuits, but a recent lawsuit naming Steve Jobs as a defendant might not be quite what the company is used to. Specifically, the recent suit brought by plaintiff and prison inmate Jonathan Lee Riches alleges that O.J. Simpson has been working as Steve Jobs' hitman since 1985. The entire suit is worth a read, since it contains gems such as Riches talking about how he "negotiated a plea bargain with Steve Jobs while he sat in Cinderella's castle in the Magic Kingdom." I wish I could make this stuff up. Lots of iPhone bricking stories have been floating around after the 1.1.1 update was released, but very few of those involved iPhones made out of bricks. I'm speaking, of course, about LEGO bricks, which an artist has used to make a model of the iPhone. The form factor is right, but the graphics on that model are still a bit lacking.What happens when you need to take pictures in dark places with your iPhone? Well if you're most people, you're out of luck. But one enterprising iPhone owner has cobbled together an iPhone flash from some LEDs and an old car charger. Judging by the pictures, it works very well. There's no word yet on what it does to battery life, or whether it will ever be commercially available.Along with all of the other updates released this week, Apple upgraded the Firmware Restoration CD to version 1.4. The CD can be used to fix up your Intel Mac after a botched firmware update, and now supports 2007 MacBooks as well as 8-core Mac Pros. If you actually need it, it's a 30MB download and can be used to create a CD on either an Intel or PowerPC Mac. On the more serious side of things, everyone's favorite analyst Gene (Herman to his friends) Munster is reporting that the iPhone price drop has given sales of the device a swift kick in the rear. Demand has apparently increased between 70 and 100 percent—much higher than first expected. The increased demand won't do much for the September quarter, but the holiday quarter is going to be even sweeter if those numbers continue to hold.

That's all I've got for today. Have a wonderful weekend, but do try to keep any children or loved ones away from O.J. Simpson. And keep those suggestions for Friday links rolling in, too!

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GNOME 2.22 planning: Empathy messaging client and toolkit proposed for inclusion

We have previously discussed Empathy, an open source instant messaging client and toolkit that is part of the Telepathy project. Empathy has officially been proposed for inclusion in GNOME 2.22, making Telepathy and the Mission Control connection management framework potential external dependencies. HangZhou Night Net

Empathy is rapidly becoming an important part of the GNOME software ecosystem and is already packaged in several mainstream distributions, including the upcoming Ubuntu 7.10 release. Empathy integration features for Nautilus, Totem, Epiphany, and Jokosher and others are currently being developed. The Empathy toolkit is also being used by Intel as part of its new Linux-based mobile platform. Telepathy could eventually provide pervasive messaging and presence functionality throughout the entire desktop environment.

Although there is much support for Empathy in the GNOME developer community, there are some who are reluctant to support inclusion in GNOME 2.22 because of limited documentation, the need to relicense GPL components adapted from the Gossip client under the LGPL, and general concerns about completeness. It is not yet certain whether or not these issues will be resolved in time for Empathy to be included in GNOME 2.22, but the project has significant momentum and provides considerable value, making it likely candidate for inclusion at some point in the future if not in GNOME 2.22.

In related news, Empathy 0.13 was officially released today, with a completely reworked contact list API, an improved smiley management algorithm, avatar caching, and many bug fixes and minor improvements. Empathy developer Xavier Claessens has also announced a new experimental Empathy branch with preliminary support for VoIP.

Other features being considered for GNOME 2.22 include Novell's improvements to the clock applet, Alex Gravely's innovative Gimmie project, the Anjuta software development environment, and the Cheese photo application. Stay tuned for in-depth coverage of some of these features in upcoming journal posts.

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GNOME 2.22 planning: GIO and GVFS proposed for inclusion

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The GIO library, a GObject-based abstraction layer for I/O, has been proposed for inclusion in GNOME 2.22. It includes abstract stream base classes for synchronous and asynchronous I/O, file input and output stream classes, a file info mechanism that has a key/value attribute pair system that can be used by various back ends to expose specialized file metadata, a directory iteration mechanism, and a mount operation callback handler.

The GIO library is currently used to develop GVFS, a userspace virtual filesystem framework that is being designed to replace the aging GnomeVFS library. GVFS uses the D-BUS interprocess communication protocol to facilitate interaction between the daemons that run individual mounts and a central daemon that registers and manages mounts. D-Bus isn't used for the actual file transfers, however, because of performance reasons. "[W]hen we're actually reading or writing file content we pass a unix socket fd over the dbus and use a custom binary protocol over that," explains GIO and GVFS developer Alexander Larsson. "This lets us do file transfers very efficiently."

One of the most significant failings of the old GnomeVFS library is that it doesn't make mountpoints accessible to applications that don't use the library. Back in February, Larsson proposed resolving this problem in GVFS by creating a FUSE bridge. FUSE is a userspace virtual filesystem layer that is implemented at the kernel level. Exposing GVFS mount points through FUSE would make it possible for all applications, including command-line utilities, to access files through GVFS.

"A large problem with gnome-vfs is that applications not specially coded to use gnome-vfs will not be able to read non-local files," wrote Larsson in a February mailing list post. "A nice solution to this would be to use FUSE to let such apps use normal syscalls to access the files. In general its quite tricky to map any URI to a FUSE file, but with the mountpoint + filename setup gvfs uses it is very easy to create a FUSE filesystem that lets you access all the current vfs mounts."

An experimental FUSE bridge has since been implemented.

Larsson has also already done preliminary work to integrate the new library into the Nautilus file manager. The experimental Nautilus integration work, which can be found in the nautilus-GIO branch in GNOME's Subversion version control repository, currently only works with the local file backend, but it has a lot of potential.

Discussion of GIO and GVFS on the GNOME mailing list has been relatively positive, and several developers seem supportive of including the libraries. Topics of discussion include how to establish a migration path to GVFS and whether or not it would make sense to create a standard cross-desktop library for abstract file access.

For more information about GVFS and how it will improve the GNOME platform, check out the slides of Larsson's Guadec presentation.

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