French lawmakers pass iTunes law

Norway, Sweden, Denmark could be next

PARIS — French lawmakers gave final approval Friday to government-backed legislation that could force Apple Computer Inc. to make its iPod music player and iTunes online store compatible with rivals’ offerings.

Both the Senate and the National Assembly, France’s lower house, voted in favor of the copyright bill, which some analysts said could cause Apple to close iTunes France and pull its market-leading player from the country’s shelves.

Currently, songs bought on iTunes can be played only on iPods, and an iPod can’t play downloads from other stores that rival the extensive iTunes music catalog from major artists and labels — like Sony Corp.’s Connect and Napster.

Apple described the original version of the copyright bill as “state-sponsored piracy” earlier this year, but the company had no immediate comment on Friday’s vote.

In a statement issued after lawmakers hashed out the final compromise text last week, Apple said it hoped the market would be left to decide “which music players and online music stores are offered to consumers.”

The vote was the last legislative step before the bill becomes law, barring the success of a last-ditch procedural challenge filed in the constitutional court last week by the opposition Socialists and Greens. The law would take effect only after that challenge is exhausted — a process expected to take several weeks.

The law states that companies are expected to share the required technical data with any rival that wants to offer compatible music players and stores.

“Any artist’s work that is legally acquired should be playable on any digital device,” Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres told lawmakers before the vote.

But the final text tones down many of the tougher measures adopted by the lower house in March. It also maintains a Senate loophole that could allow Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple and others to dodge the data-sharing demands by striking new deals with record labels and artists.

A new regulatory authority will have the power to order companies to license their exclusive file formats to rivals on request — but only if the compatibility restrictions they impose are “additional to, or independent of, those explicitly decided by the copyright holders.”

Lawyers say this means Apple and Sony could avoid sharing their FairPlay and ATRAC3 copy-protection systems, providing they obtained permission from the artists whose music they sell.

The increased say for artists could strengthen the hand of recording companies in their recurrent negotiations with Apple, as they seek more flexible iTunes pricing — currently the same 99 cents for every standard-length track.

The final vote in France comes as several other European nations are considering action to force Apple to open iTunes to rivals’ players. In a joint letter this month, consumer agencies in Norway, Sweden and Denmark accused Apple of violating contract and copyright laws.

The French law will also introduce new penalties for a range of online piracy offenses — up to a maximum three-year jail term and $380,000 fine for knowingly offering or advertising a download service for pirated music or videos.

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