It’s finally starting to happen: Technology companies are waking up to the opportunities opened by the music industry’s steadfast refusal to embrace online distribution of music files. First, Apple opens its iTunes Music Store with a simple proposition: 99 cents per song with a catalog of 200,000 tunes. There are limits on what you can do with the downloaded files, and they use a not-yet-ubiquitous file format (AAC instead of MP3), but in general their policies are pretty liberal. Besides, they’re Apple.
Today, Real Networks opens a competing store called RealOne Rhapsody that will sell each of its 325,000 songs for 79 cents apiece. Real is in the process of buying Listen.com, which is parent to Rhapsody, so maybe this is their plan to breathe a little life into the so-far-anemic service. Next, expect Pressplay, just bought by Roxio, to try a similar tack.
What to watch for here: A price war, followed by an effort among warring online music retailers to keep their costs low. One way they can do that is by piggybacking on existing music distribution networks. Instead of building a huge, central server farm, as Apple has done, why not use a distributed network that’s already in place, like KaZaA, or Morpheus? These services are increasingly moving towards an infrastructure that will support online transactions and that will give distributors the ability to limit access to their servers, if not to copies of their files.
My prediction: Within the next year or so, you’ll pay 10-25 cents per track to download songs from a preferred server via KaZaA or some other existing P2P network. What you’ll get is a higher quality digital file that’s guaranteed not to be bogus, and a fast download time, plus fairly liberal limits on what you can do with that file. There will be some kind of digital rights management but it won’t be excessive. And people will flock to a service like this.
Awhile back, I complained that I couldn’t find a clear, straightforward, non-technical explanation of RSS. Well, here’s a good one from Michael Fagan. For a more technical introduction to RSS, see Mark Pilgrim’s explanation.
Fagan’s site, incidentally, has a handy general search page that lets you target a couple dozen online search engines and information resources from a single search field, plus a blog search that targets weblogs and RSS feeds.
On a whim, I decided to pit MSN’s online version of the Encarta “encyclopedia” (part of MSN Learning and Research) against the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia available through Bartleby. The differences couldn’t be more stark.
A search for “Abelard and Heloise” on MSN turned up a few results, most accessible only to MSN subscribers. But the first result, this page, is free to all. It’s got a pretty painting of the two lovers (no information about the painting or its artist is given) and a one-paragraph, bowdlerized version of the story: “The 12th-century scholar Peter Abelard was one of the most famous theologians and philosophers of his time. In 1117 he began tutoring Héloïse, the niece of a French cleric. Abelard and Héloïse soon became secret lovers, but were forced to separate after being discovered by Héloïse’s uncle. The two lovers retired to monasteries, and although they kept in touch by writing, they did not see each other again.”
In the Columbia entry, there’s no pretty picture (and a pop-up ad appears in front of the page), but there are six meaty paragraphs with interesting information about Abelard’s dates, his theology and philosophy, his importance in the rebirth of Aristotelian methods leading up to Aquinas, and his significance as a teacher. But the biography is juicier too, telling more of the story including Abelard’s abduction of Héloïse and his subsequent castration by Héloïse’s uncle. There’s also a short bibliography listing three books you can read to learn more. And that’s just the first of several search results.
The amazing thing is that MSN calls its reference section “Learning and Research” — as if you could learn anything, or do any research, there. Bartleby, on the other hand, rules. It’s got not just the encyclopedia but also a dictionary, thesauri, Gray’s Anatomy, various quotation references, the Bible, Shakespeare, and lots and lots of books. The site is fast and easy to use, and all of its pages have short, simple URLs. I can’t figure out how the good folks at Bartleby have kept their site going for so long without charging access or subscription fees, but bravo for them.
A press release by Unix publisher SCO Group claims that “Linux is an unauthorized derivative of UNIX and that legal liability for the use of Linux may extend to commercial users. SCO issued this alert based on its findings of illegal inclusions of SCO UNIX intellectual property in Linux.”
Apparently, SCO hasn’t initiated legal proceedings against anyone, but it has suspended distribution of its own version, SCO Linux. The company is also magnanimously saying it won’t prosecute its own customers for copyright infringement (no word on whether it will be hauling its own engineers into court, though).
Microdoc News recently commissioned a one-week study of 545 university students who were, relatively speaking, experts in information retrieval (they all had received some kind of training in information seeking and said they used Google more than 3 hours/week).
The results? The survey showed that the most successful (and prolific) users of Google take an “experimental” approach to searching, first trying simple one-word or multi-word queries, then trying other, more complicated queries until they find what they’re looking for. This group also tends to use Google as a navigational tool: Even if they know a domain name, they prefer to type it into the Google search field rather than the address box on their browser. That’s not as silly as it sounds: This can be an effective way to correct misremembered URLs.
I edited the Spring 2003 issue of RLG News, a semiannual magazine published by RLG that covers issues of interest to that organization’s membership: research libraries, museums, and archives. Articles in this issue cover RLG’s “RedLightGreen” project (an effort to make it easier to find authoritative sources of research information online); efforts to preserve digital information; the development of a new, P2P model for interlibrary lending; and more. Most of the issue is not available online, although one sample article (on digital archives) is available as a PDF file. Contact me if you’re interested in any of the other articles. I’ll be posting some more RLG-related content here shortly.
The first amendment guarantees freedom of expression, but that’s not worth much if you don’t have a corresponding right to read, listen, and watch whomever’s expressions you want. This is why librarians have long been jealous guardians of their patrons’ privacy: Monitoring people’s reading habits is the first step towards circumscribing, or even censoring, specific works. People won’t use the library if they think the FBI might come knocking as soon as they read a book about Islam, for instance.
The cynically misnamed PATRIOT Act undercuts this right by giving the FBI permission to tap into library records, at will and in secret, without letting anyone know that they’re doing so. Now Rep. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has introduced a “Freedom to Read” bill that would restore privacy to the patrons of bookstores and libraries. The ACLU supports it, and you should too.
From a blogjournal called eyeteeth run by Paul Schmelzer comes this interesting interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan, intellectual property expert and communications professor at NYU. SV paints a pretty grim picture of how much the landscape of copyright has changed in the last 15-20 years, from one that fostered cultural exchange and development to an arena where the supposed “intellectual property” rights of a few giant corporations take precedence over everything else. These topics will be familiar to anyone who’s been following these issues, but SV makes forceful, informed points and he clearly has an appreciation for the big picture, and for the many facets of the issues at stake.