Apple may be favored by French bill

Lawmakers might drop requirement that DRM makers provide technical details to competitors

French lawmakers may throw out plans to require online music stores to use interoperable DRM (digital rights management) systems to protect their wares when a new copyright bill comes up for debate Thursday.

A committee of the French Senate has recommended to senators that they amend the bill to remove a requirement that makers and users of DRM systems provide technical details to their competitors to enable the development of interoperable systems.

The measure, proposed by the French National Assembly, is widely seen as an attack on Apple Computer Inc. which, with its iPod music player and iTunes Music Store service, has taken a dominant share of the music download market. Apple refuses to license its FairPlay DRM system to other companies, but the bill as voted by the assembly would oblige it to divulge information enabling the creation of interoperable systems.

If senators follow the guidance of the Senate Commission on Cultural Affairs, then the interoperability requirement could disappear from the bill on "Authors' rights and related rights in an information society," known by its abbreviated name DADVSI in French. The commission proposed 40 amendments to the bill, and senators have already proposed over 180 others.

French open-source campaigners say that in attempting to amend the interoperability requirement, the commission has confused existing patent and copyright laws. The commission's amendments may inadvertently extend patent protection to DRM software, according to the French Association of Users of Linux and Free Software. Currently, DRM software cannot be patented under French law, although its code is protected by copyright.

Another group upset by the commission's amendments is the ObjectWeb consortium, which develops open-source middleware.

ObjectWeb warns that the bill's provisions could expose developers of open-source middleware to unintended legal consequences. The bill calls for fines and prison sentences for the publishers or distributors of software manifestly intended for the unauthorized distribution of copyright works, without clearly defining what "manifestly intended" means.

Given that middleware can be used for the exchange of information of any kind, including copyright works, ObjectWeb is concerned that it could be liable if its members continue to develop and distribute middleware intended for use in building business systems, its director wrote in an open letter to senators last week. ObjectWeb members include agencies funded by the French government, such as the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA), the French Atomic Energy Commission and the French National Center for Scientific Research, and French businesses including France Télécom SA, Atos Origin SA, Bull SA.

The bill received the approval of the French National Assembly on March 21. If the Senate approves the bill at the conclusion of its debates on May 4, 9 and 10, the bill could become law after just two readings instead of the usual four: the government is rushing the text through parliament under special emergency procedures.

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