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Publisher to Test Software Rentals

THE computer software industry is entering the uncharted territory of rentals.

Compton's NewMedia Inc., a developer of educational and entertainment software, announces today an agreement under which Major Video Concepts will distribute compact-disc software for rental in selected video stores. Major Video is the nation's second-largest video distributor.

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Traditionally software has not been rented because of the problem of illegal copying.

But without the rental option, "we don't have an avenue for people to test it out and see if they want to buy it," says Norman Bastin, senior vice president and general manager of Compton's NewMedia, a division of Encyclopedia Britannica.

When consumers have a chance to try the software and get to know it, they will "see the power of it and they actually go out and buy it," Mr. Bastin says. Pirating will be prevented by the high cost of the "writable" discs onto which the CD-ROM (compact disc with "read-only" memory) could be copied, he adds.

The rentals, which will start later this month, will be priced comparably to a home-video rental, around $3 a night. The rental outlets already have video games for rent, as well as videos on nonfiction topics. Thus the companies see their agreement as the next logical step.

Among the 80 CD-ROM titles to be offered at first are an electronic cookbook, "Wild Places," a history of jazz, and instructional guides on golf and the American Civil War. The software allows a mix of sound, pictures, video, and text - and all in the interactive format in which the user can select the information he wants to see displayed.

One problem, however, is the small size of the potential market at present. Bastin notes that video rentals began before most households had videocassette recorders on which to play movies. The number of CD-ROM disc-drives connected to home computers will grow from 1 million last year to around 10 million by 1995 and keep growing, he predicts.

Each CD can hold huge amounts of information - Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia is all on one palm-size disc, which includes 13,000 pictures, built-in dictionary and atlas, an hour of sound and video clips as well as the full encyclopedia text.

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Compton's, based here near San Diego, not only publishes its own titles but also distributes those of companies with which it has ties. The 80 initial titles include 22 of Compton's own.

Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia is not among its initial rental offerings. It is one of the company's more expensive products, at $395, and is being marketed vigorously through other channels. One potential competitor is Microsoft Corporation, with its forthcoming Encarta encyclopedia, which has seven hours of sound information to Compton's one. Bastin argues that Compton's uses a superior text.

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