Apple sour over Gallic music bill

Proposed law makes iPod, iTunes compatible with rivals

PARIS — ITunes’ discordant relationship with France could hit another bum note.

A proposed new law will open the way for rivals to challenge Apple Computer’s domination of the online music biz in France by making its iPod music player and iTunes online store compatible with rivals’ offerings.

Apple has already slammed the controversial regulation as “state-sponsored piracy.”

A French Culture Ministry source said Wednesday that the bill, which France’s upper and lower houses are expected to pass on Friday, had been toned down without sacrificing the principle of interoperability.

Earlier media reports had suggested the bill had let Apple off the hook.

But rather than imposing the compulsory sharing of digital rights management (DRM) technology — the electronic locks used by Apple and others — a new authority will decide case-by-case whether rivals have a legitimate claim against the company.

Potential challengers could include music companies, other online musicstores and the manufacturers of portable devices.

“This is not about attacking Apple. It is a principle that most people, consumers and artists included, agree with,” said the ministry source.

Ironically, the legislation that has upset the world’s biggest player in the online music biz is intended to encourage legal downloading. The ministry believes the exclusive DRM technology incites piracy.

“It encourages illegal downloading because, apart from copying from a CD, in most cases the only other place consumers can acquire music for their iPod is via illegal file-sharing,” the source said.

Pascal Rogard, head of the powerful Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, which distributes royalties to writers and composers in Gaul, agreed. “It is clearly wrong and detrimental to rights holders when a company says you can only consume the content it is selling on a particular piece of equipment. It’s as if you could only watch (French paybox) Canal Plus on a Thomson TV set.”

Rogard predicted the legislation would prompt “battles” between Apple and other players keen to grab a slice of the Gallic online content biz.

Friday’s bill covers a wide range of measures from the legalization of copy protection technologies to fines for Internet piracy, in line with a 2001 European Directive on the protection of copyright in the digital age.

France is one of the last countries to transcribe the directive into law, and the late timing is one reason why interoperability became an issue in Gaul rather than elsewhere.

Several other countries whose digital copyright laws did not address the question, including the U.K. and Scandinavia nations, have since expressed concerns about iTunes practices.

Apple is not alone in disliking the French legislation.

Some socialist MPs believe the law is too skewed toward the interests of copyright holders at the expense of consumers. They are expected to appeal to the Constitutional Council, delaying the law’s application until August.

Once the law reaches the statute books, Apple’s only options will be to assess whether the new rules violate any international treaties or to mull removing iTunes from the Gallic market.

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