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Multimedia tips from the field

PC World

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor at PC World magazine]

(IDG) -- For my 40th birthday, my wife Betsy bought me tickets to see one of my favorite performers -- Neil Young -- at one of the world's most beautiful venues, Red Rocks Amphitheater just outside Denver. Although late September in the Rockies can be glorious, the weather's unpredictable. This year it snowed, and the unpleasant prospect of sitting in the dark as freezing rain turned to snow outweighed our love for the plaid-clad one.

To diminish my disappointment at missing the show, I started looking around on the Net for some Neil concert footage -- and lo and behold, I found a streaming Webcast of the Red Rocks show that Neil & Co. played two days before our snowy date. But who wants to sit in front of the computer watching video play in an itty-bitty on-screen window? Not Betsy. No matter how many times I tried to launch the highest-quality version of the video -- a 300-kbps stream -- it crapped out after only a few seconds. Never mind that I recently graduated to a blazing-fast cable-modem connection. How could I watch the Webcast video that somebody (Neil, presumably) put online?

I needed to capture that video stream, save it as a file, convert it to MPEG format, burn it to a recordable CD, and pop the disc into my DVD player (most DVD drives can play CD-ROMs formatted according to the Video CD standard). Unfortunately, streaming video is meant to stay that way -- you won't find any 'download' or 'save as' links at most of the streaming sites. Even the trick of right-clicking the link and choosing Save Target As (in Internet Explorer) or Save Link As (in Navigator) doesn't work with streaming files. Steve Bass offers a solution to this problem in this month's Home Office column.

You can use Real's RealPlayer 8 Basic to capture audio and video streams in the Real Video (.ram) format and save them on a hard disk in .rm format -- if whoever creates the file decides to allow the feature. You have to look pretty hard to find the free Basic version of the player, not the $30 Plus edition, on Real's Web site.

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Record the unrecordable

To capture a Real stream for offline viewing, choose Play, Record Audio or Play, Record Video, or right-click the audio or video clip and choose the record command from the pop-up menu. Don't get your hopes up, though. After several hours of browsing, I found precious few clips that had a selective-record feature enabled. One potential solution is Streambox's Streambox VCR, but it is temporarily unavailable. When it reappears, it may include the ability to capture Real streaming content.

Microsoft doesn't offer a capture option for the .asf, .wma, and .wmv files its Windows Media Player streams (or for their respective .asx, .wmx, and .wmv redirector files that point to Windows Media files elsewhere on the server). But thanks to an anonymous German programmer, you may have better luck capturing Windows Media streams than Real content. The free, open-source ASFRecorder intercepts incoming Windows Media streams and saves them as files. For more information about the recorder, check the creator's Web site.

To use ASFRecorder, you must know the address of the streaming file that you want to capture. Some sites, like Barbra Streisand's, make capturing a streaming file pretty easy: Just right-click the streaming link you want to capture and choose Copy Shortcut in Internet Explorer or Copy Link Location in Navigator; then choose File, Open URL in ASFRecorder, and paste the link into the Open field. Not all streaming files are this easy to track down, though. The program's voluminous readme file (choose Help, Show Readme-File) offers extensive tips for identifying streaming-file addresses that are cloaked by server scripting or other devices intended to keep streams beyond our control.

Once the file is on your hard disk, you can burn it to a Video CD, which you can then watch on either a computer or a TV using most any DVD player. Video file-format conversion and CD-burning tricks are beyond the scope of this column, but you'll find instructions for just about any conceivable task at the authoritative VCD Help Web site.

Is file-copying theft?

Napster may not survive the lawsuits against it, but file-copying will undoubtedly live on in other utilities. So, is it stealing? Libraries share books much like Napster shares songs, although it's illegal to photocopy entire books in a library. Until the courts sort it out, you're on your own to reconcile the innate freedom of digital media with the rights of the people creating it. Here are some sites that can help you educate yourself about the issues:

Artists Against Piracy is a coalition of recording artists, including Christina Aguilera, Blink-182, Garth Brooks, Herbie Hancock, Hootie & the Blowfish, Sarah McLachlan, and Dwight Yoakam, who support the Recording Industry Association of America's anti-Napster position. The coalition's motto is "If a song means a lot to you, imagine what it means to us."

Cuckoo's Egg Project, an anti-Napster vigilante monkey-wrenching site, publishes instructions on how to make and share Cuckoo's Eggs -- MP3 files masquerading as well-known tunes but with only the first few seconds of the song. The rest of the file is white noise or a repeating cuckoo-clock sound.

screenshot
HTNL Works is a Web-based service that will let you edit the HTML on your site from any browser  

Electronic Frontier Foundation's Campaign for Audiovisual Free Expression takes the position that while pirating an artist's work is illegal, not all file-copying is piracy. The group argues that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 may be unconstitutional.

Fairtunes.com lets you pay the artists whose recordings you have downloaded. The site isn't specific about its remuneration process, but it promises to forward your payment to any artist in a "fast and accountable way."

The Home Recording Rights Coalition campaigns for the consumer's right to use audio/video equipment and PCs to make copies of music and video for noncommercial purposes. Check out the HRRC's summary of the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act, a law that may play a central role in determining the legality of Napster and other file-sharing technologies.

The Recording Industry Association of America represents the interests of record companies in legal and legislative venues. The RIAA provides a detailed explanation of its position on what file copiers can and cannot download.

SpeakOut.com's Napster Activism Center contains plenty of information and has links to Napster-related sites, both pro and con, plus opinion polls on copyright and piracy issues.

PCWorld.com discusses the legalities of MP3 from a user's perspective, including how to obtain legal digital audio files, and what you can and can't do with them. You'll get an even broader perspective by reading about the technology underlying the MP3 file format in Michael Gowan's informative article "How It Works: MP3."

Download of the month: Edit your Web site with any browser

Now there's no excuse for leaving the broken links on your Web site dangling indefinitely. A new service, HTMLWorks lets you edit your site from any browser. You don't need to keep the master files on hand, and you don't have to download the software. It runs on the HTMLWorks Web site (if this keeps up, we may have to rechristen this part of the column).

You may not want to use the service for all your work, however, especially if you're accustomed to using WYSIWYG editors. HTMLWorks offers a preview mode, but you have to know HTML to edit pages.

Still, HTMLWorks is free and offers valuable tools for optimizing your site, validating its HTML code, checking for broken links, and boosting your search-engine ranking.

Add AOL Plus? No thanks!

If you use America Online 5 or 6 over an office LAN, DSL, cable-modem, or other high-speed connection, AOL automatically detects the fast connection and downloads an add-on called AOL Plus that offers video content geared to broadband speeds.

If you don't want the AOL Plus window on your AOL desktop, or it conflicts with other software, or you switch to a slower connection, you can remove the add-on program. Type remove AOL plus in the AOL address field, press Enter, and follow the instructions.




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RELATED SITES:
VCD Help Web site
Artists Against Piracy
Recording Industry Association of America

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