Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 11 News List

France passes copyright law aimed at Apple's iTunes

COMPATIBILITY CONCERN Legislation that could go into effect within a month could force the computer giant to make its music files work with other players


French legislators gave final approval on Friday to a copyright law that could force Apple Computer Inc to make songs purchased from its market-leading iTunes Music Store compatible with music players of its rivals.

The Senate and the National Assembly both voted to approve the law, which will also reduce the penalties for the illegal downloading of music to little more than a parking fine.

The law could go into effect within a month.

Legal experts and industry lobbyists said that the resulting law was a messy compromise that would make it difficult to achieve the goal of the legislation -- to force Apple, or other companies with proprietary music formats, to make their offerings compatible with rivals' digital music devices.

"The bill passed today has softened the core of the first proposals," said Hugo Lueders, director for public policy in Europe at CompTIA, an information technology trade association. The group commended the French parliament for "passing a more market-oriented copyright protection bill."

While the law states that copy protection software cannot hinder access to a legally purchased digital work, there are a number of conditions that must be met before a company like Apple can change its format.

One way that Apple can protect itself from forced interoperability, for example, is by having musicians agree that music sold on iTunes can not be converted to other formats.

Additionally, rivals seeking to make their devices compatible with songs from iTunes must convince a newly created regulatory authority that interoperability will not infringe on patents or other rights belonging to Apple.

"Since American companies tend to patent everything, I am sure Apple can find a way to stop giving away information about their proprietary format," said Dominique Menard, a partner at the Lovells law firm who specializes in intellectual property. "The law is also so complex that we really need to see the application."

The vote brought to an end more than six months of heated debate that has led to a broader European discussion about governments mandating access to digital cultural content.

"This text affirms a new principle, interoperability, which makes France a pioneer country in Europe," Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, the French minister of culture, told the National Assembly on Friday.

Consumer advocates in Norway, Denmark and Sweden have asked Apple to explain by Aug. 1 why songs purchased on iTunes could not be played on rival devices.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, released a report on Friday warning that difficulties in transferring digital files among devices hindered the development of content.

Lawmakers in Poland and Switzerland are likely to discuss the issue while updating national copyright laws this year.

Donnedieu de Vabres, who in December was given the task of aligning national copyright legislation to norms set by the EU, instead pushed for legislation that could have far-reaching consequences for the software and entertainment industries in the Internet era.

The process was fraught with unexpected twists, including a brief moment when it seemed that peer-to-peer file sharing of the sort considered illegal in most countries.

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