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Leading items and editorials

Loki cuts staff, but remains for the long haul  Rumors have flourished recently regarding the demise of popular Linux games maker Loki Entertainment Software. The problem seems to have started with posts to the LinuxGames web site from an ex-employee of Loki, who was just out looking for other work and out to let people know he was moving on. Discussion ran rampant on why so many developers were leaving Loki. Was the company in trouble? Is Tribes 2 the last gasp for the premiere Linux gaming company and all around favorite of the hacker crowd?

Not hardly. Like many companies in the high tech arena, Loki has to deal with the realities of a tight economy and, on top of that, a small market niche. While games on Linux seem to thrive and be one area the public is not overly concerned with paying cash for software, there really isn't a large enough market to support a large development team at Loki. The desktop world needs to evolve further to expand Loki's penetration.

"The Linux market is still very small--much smaller than the Mac market," said Loki co-founder and President Scott Draeker in an email interview with LWN.net. While the community as a whole has been very good to the company, and the press has offered high praise for their products and support, no one is making a fortune at the small California based company. "Some [people] have assumed that all the good news and good work we were doing meant that we had all become instant millionaires. Not a chance."

In fact, Draeker says they aren't even making money yet. Then again, that doesn't mean they're ready just yet to shut the doors to the business. "We're in this for the long haul. We want to build a Linux gaming industry. That takes time and plenty of sweat and cash. And no, we are not profitable. But we aren't going anywhere either."

Finding cash has been a high priority for Draeker since last year. He says the company knew back in December that funding wasn't becoming available and that employees were told about the situation. "We told them they were welcome to stay," noted Draeker, "or start to look for other jobs. A number of people left over a period of 3 months. At that point most had gone about as far they could with the ups and downs associated with being a start up in a down market." Now the company is running at break even levels. Says Draeker, "We've cut back to a size where we can sustain our operations exclusively from sales revenue. That said, we are still looking for funding partners."

Loki is in the midst of a releasing two new games for the Linux platform: Tribes 2 and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Tribes 2 is a first person shooter based on team tactics, where players work within teams to do battle with human and AI opponents. Alpha Centauri is a simulation and strategy game where players conquer entire planets or build their own utopian society on earth. They've also started a bonus program to offer discounts on multiple purchases from their Web site, as well as a program for LUGs (Linux User Groups) that can purchase products in quantity at a discount with Loki picking up the shipping charges.

While the release of two new games can likely help maintain revenue to keep the company going, Loki's software plans are not designed for porting games alone. "A great deal of the work we've done on projects like SDL and OpenAL lays the foundation for us to access larger markets for our products. Our open source projects aren't really designed for porting games, but for creating them."

At the recent Colorado Linux Info Quest conference, Draeker compared the gaming industry to Hollywood. "Lots of movies get made but just a few blockbusters make the profits. Loki is looking for a blockbuster." Although he alluded to the possibility of Loki working on games for console systems in the future, he said the recently canceled Linux-based game console Indrema was never more than vaporware. Loki hadn't been working on games for that system.

In the short term Loki remains focused on building revenue streams. In a tough economy that often requires cutting back, even for a Linux favorite like Loki. But it's not the end. Just a speedbump. World domination, at least for Loki, may still just be a point and click away.

Fun laws in Europe. The United States has taken a lot of grief in recent years for a number of laws that, shall we say, were not particularly well thought out. Every now and then, however, the world makes it clear that the U.S. has no monopoly on legal silliness. This has been one of those weeks.

Consider, for example, the new copyright directive issued by the European Council of Ministers. As good a summary of any, perhaps, can be found in this congratulatory message from the European Commission. The purpose of the directive is to "harmonize" European laws on copyright, and, incidentally, "bring European copyright rules into the digital age." That, of course, is code for adopting something that looks much like the American Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which has already caused more than its share of problems.

Consider, for example, the following:

Firstly, rightholders have complete control over the manufacture, distribution etc. of devices designed to circumvent anti-copying devices. A more flexible solution in this regard would have carried a greater risk of abuse and piracy.

This language is described as "a balanced compromise." This is exactly the sort of provision that got the DeCSS code in trouble in the U.S.; expect similar problems in Europe.

The directive has little interest in fair use in any form. Even time shifting of television programs is regarded as an actionable use for which compensation should be expected.

In general, the directive is fearful of digital copying:

However, as far as private copying is concerned, the quality and quantity of private copying and the growth of electronic commerce all mean that there should be greater protection for rightholders in digital recording media (whereby unlimited numbers of perfect copies may be made rapidly).

When a government is trying to restrict rights, it always helps to have an enemy. Copying is now that enemy, and any sort of means is justified in attacking it. But the free software world thrives on copying and freedom of information. The new European copyright directive reduces that freedom; it is only a matter of time until the free software community runs afoul of it.

Web site registration in Italy. Italy, it seems, has a new law which defines web sites, especially those which are periodically updated, as "editorial content," and makes them subject to the laws covering newspapers. What that means, essentially, is that Italian web sites must:

  • Present the name and address of the publisher, as well as the location of the site's server.

  • Be registered with the locality in which they are published, and pay all the associated fees.

  • Register a "managing editor," who bears responsibility for what the site publishes. This editor must be a member of the "Order of Journalists," which is not a particularly easy thing to do: one must pass a state examination, and one must have completed eighteen months of study in the presence of at least four registered journalists.

Those interested in the details can see Come mettersi in regola con le norme sulla stampa ("How to comply with the press regulations") on the InterLex site. (The text, strangely enough, is in Italian).

The attitude behind this whole thing, perhaps, is best summarized by this quote from Paolo Serventi Longhi, the secretary of the Federazione nazionale della Stampa (the national journalists' union), as found in Punto Informatico:

Thus ends, at least in Italy, the absurd anarchy which allows anybody to put information online without regulation, controls, or guarantees of a minimal quality or standards to the user of information products...

(Translation by the editor).

The law places responsibility on Internet service providers as well; ISPs can find themselves responsible for the operation of a "clandestine press." It also applies to servers that are hosted outside of Italy - as long as the content originates in Italy or is transmitted into Italy. Violators are subject to fines and up to two years in jail.

We talked briefly with Michel Morelli, producer of the Italian Linux news site ZioBudda, who sees this law as "a threat to 3/4 of the Italian Internet," and who pointed out this online petition calling for the repeal of the law. The petition had almost 34,000 signatures as of this writing; certainly it could use more.

This sort of law is scary, even in Italy, which is full of weird laws that are widely ignored. Regularly-updated web sites are not uncommon - the other variety is generally called "dead." In particular, any site hosting free software certainly needs regular updates, or it is useless. Any kernel.org mirror could find itself in trouble. Even if it is not widely applied, this kind of law can be used to shut down sites that somebody in power finds inconvenient.

It also does not take a whole lot of paranoia to imagine this sort of reasoning leading to the conclusion that distribution of software, too, needs more "regulation, controls, and guarantees." Consider that Italy is about to elect a Prime Minister who controls half the television channels in the country (to a post that controls the other half), and who has stated his intent to create a new "ministry of information" under the control of an industry leader. And consider that these sorts of bad ideas have an unpleasant habit of spreading across borders.

Free software will not get very far without freedom, and threats to freedom come in many forms. We have a lot of battles to fight, still.

Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:

  • Security: Red Hat mkpasswd password generator, new vulnerabilities in IPTables, Samba, cfingerd, bubblemon and more.
  • Kernel: Zero-copy networking goes in; letting the child go first on fork().
  • Distributions: Slackware faces hard times, but will continue, Red Hat Linux 7.1 is released, Ratatosk closes down.
  • On the Desktop: Taxing software, KParts is not MICO, and more GUADEC summaries.
  • Development: PostgreSQL 7.1.
  • Commerce: Open source software in EU public administrations, ActiveState launches ASPN Initiative.
  • History: Two years ago Caldera released OpenLinux 2.2, one year ago - backdoors.
  • Letters: Paying for downloads; Wind River and the GPL; we are corrected on the topic of bonobos.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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April 19, 2001


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