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Usenet on a CD-ROM, no longer a fable

The latest tempest-in-a-teacup of hurricane proportions on Usenet is raging quite nicely in the news.misc group. This time the subject matter should be of interest to many, so here comes the nitty-gritty.

A company in the USA recently began offering Usenet-on-CD-ROM monthly disks for a fee (approximately US$35 per disk, if memory serves me right; $25 per issue if one subscribes to it). As a product goes it is not expensive; in fact it is downright cheap all things considered. Getting a full news feed each day from somewhere – even if from a nearby friendly service – is bound to cost many times that in telephone charges alone. On the other hand…. having the full monthly Usenet (ALL OF IT, from all countries of the world, not solely from the USA) arrive in your mailbox, even 2 to 4 weeks after the posting date, must be considered an incredible and amazing opportunity.

Ah, to be able to peruse all 500+ MB of it at will, at one’s convenience, even without formal access to Usenet. Therefore all kudos to the initiator, Sterling Software, and may they live long and prosper. Thanks for that alternative news feed, even if it is a bit slooow. But then, as someone recently said on the net, "there are few other media that can beat the bandwidth of a truck full of CD-ROMs." 😉

Of course, that… feeling of elation, for want of a better phrase, was not what the storm was about. Rather than accept the service that Sterling Software offers for what it effectively is, a different form of the distribution of the net news, the rage was all about (1) them charging you for the CD-ROMs (the horror! the horror!) and (2) them infringing upon real or imagined intellectual property rights of the posters to Usenet.

Sterling Software, in the words of its spokesman, Kent Landfield, makes no claims as to the reuse of the public news that they supply. They view themselves entirely as an alternative transport and archival service (all those trucks full of CD-ROMs gathering dust ;-)) Thus anybody will be free to put the contents of the NetNews/CD’s up for use with FTP, mount them for access in local BBS, import them into the WAIS (Wide Area Information Service) and so on. The original posters’ rights and restrictions on reuse, if any, are still in force. The information on CD-ROMs continues to be as free as it was in the beginning.

Yet, listening to some of the arguments being passed in the heat of the discussion it becomes clear that in the mind of the flamers it apparently is acceptable that UUNET, PSI, and other commercial Usenet providers charge for the telephone-accessed feeds, not to mention the charges to the telephone services themselves, but it is definitely not acceptable to offer an alternative that’s cut in the plastic and aluminum that the CD-ROMs are made of.

No, sireee, the latter is "publishing," therefore constitutes criminal unauthorized infringing upon use of their words which may not be embossed in stone unless they get paid for it. Well, that’s roughly how the argumentative posters feel. At times it was outright funny, but chiefly left me with a feeling of very limited and narrow minds now trying to butter up the importance of their own egos, the written end products of which are usually submitted in a Without-A-Thought[tm] fashion to the net. Please observe that I claim full intellectual property rights for the above expression, "Without-A-Thought[tm]," which may not be used by anyone without written permission from the undersigned. I waive that right for use by TidBITS and Sterling Software however (yes, since TidBITS is distributed in the comp.sys.mac.digest group it too will end up on the CD-ROMs).

The above was, of course, a bit sarcastic. But it illustrates well where we’d soon be if the extreme arguments against the NetNews/CD product were taken at a face value and adhered to universally. Anybody[tm] could claim Sole Rights[tm] to Any Expression Whatsoever[tm]. Fortunately the company in question has had the guts to face up to the potential lawsuit-trigger-happy netters by, effectively, taking the legal grounds for a suit out of their hands. In a recent message on the net they offer every individual among those bent upon not allowing own contributions to be distributed in plastic and aluminum to register with them on an individual basis, asking them to remove any future posts of his or her from the data mass prior to each monthly pressing of it. Fortunately the CD-ROMs’ contents are prepared by a special software that filters such people’s posts automatically so the process need not be that complicated. One registered letter to the Sterling Software and they’re gone, gone, gone forever, and the rest of us are hardly worse off for it.

In the end the arrival of such a service may perhaps even lead some of the current "I Post Therefore I Exist" submitters (it sounds even better in Latin!) to consider twice whether or not to risk being an eternal (or at least the life of a CD-ROM) subject of ridicule for posting offensive or stupid stuff, an activity that up to now has largely been an unpunishable offense. Perhaps that in part accounted for the recent outburst on the net, that the NetNews/CD effectively changes the rules of the game; from now on self-censure becomes a necessity for all posts by all nominally responsible, and wishing to retain that label, people.

The whole issue of the NetNews/CD is too vast and too important to be presented here in depth; those interested with access to the Usenet may try to read the relevant articles by visiting the /usr/spool/news/misc at the earliest opportunity. Alternately, send email to the company (addresses below) to be added to an administrative (cdnews) or a directional (cddev) mailing list.

administrative list: [email protected]
directional group: [email protected]

Sterling Software — 402/291-8300

Information from:
Ian Feldman — [email protected]

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