French copyright bill gives Apple a break

Amended bill opens a loophole allowing companies to keep their DRM technology secret

The French Senate approved a new copyright bill Wednesday, but amended it to soften a requirement for digital music vendors such as Apple Computer to open up their DRM (digital rights management) technologies to competitors.

When the French National Assembly voted an earlier draft of the bill in March, Apple accused it of "state-sponsored piracy" because of its efforts to give music buyers freedom to choose the equipment they used to listen to tracks they had purchased. The Assembly had sought to make digital music vendors provide full details of their DRM systems to those wishing to create interoperable systems. This would have forced Apple to provide other music store operators or music player manufacturers with details of the FairPlay technology it uses to lock tracks bought through its iTunes music store so that they will only play on an iPod, or on a computer running its iTunes jukebox software. So far, it has refused to license the technology to other vendors.

The text of the bill approved by senators on Wednesday retains the principle of DRM interoperability, but opens a loophole allowing companies to keep their technology secret, which should please Apple, but may not leave consumers as happy.

Senators weakened the bill's blanket requirement that vendors give details of their DRM technology to those wishing to develop interoperable systems. Instead, they voted to create a new regulatory authority responsible for mediating requests for such details.

The authority will have the power to order companies to share details of their DRM, but companies will be able to refuse as long as their DRM systems only limit usage of digital music or movies in a way approved by the author or copyright holder.

That means that music store operators can duck the interoperability requirement by renegotiating deals with record labels and artists -- for example by signing exclusive distribution contracts -- something the copyright holders might agree to if convinced it will enhance the security of the DRM systems protecting their works.

Developers of open source software seeking to make their code interoperable with DRM-protected systems and files will also face a challenge: DRM technology owners will be allowed to prohibit publication of source code developed using the details they provide, if they can show that such publication would seriously effect the security and effectiveness of their DRM system.

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