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France Gets Closer to Creating Copyright Law on Digital Music

By Thomas Crampton


Resisting pressure from business, French lawmakers have moved the country a step closer to a copyright law that would have wide-ranging effects on those selling or listening to digital music.

The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday after amending it to address concerns from companies like Apple that had called it “state-sponsored piracy.”

The Senate version of what is being called the iPod bill softens some measures that could have forced Apple to open all music sold from its iTunes Music Store to play on portable devices other than the Apple iPod.

The change is the crucial difference from the version passed in March by the National Assembly.

The National Assembly’s version permitted consumers to ask a court to force companies like Apple to let songs bought from iTunes play on other portable devices. The Senate version would accept such appeals only from companies.

The bill would guarantee that tunes could play on multiple devices in a way that preserves some copy protection and respects rights established when the work was purchased. The real-world application of all this to companies like Apple and Sony will come out of committee actions.

The latest vote comes amid global debate over patents and copyrights in a world where instant Internet distribution of perfect digital copies is being blamed for disrupting conventional media business models.“France has adopted an entirely new and unique approach to managing digital music and films that could be a model for other countries to follow,” said Jonathan Arber, an analyst in London at Ovum, a consulting firm. “Everyone will be watching the impact six months down the line to see whether consumers or companies have benefited.”

Government officials said differences between the versions of the bill would be worked out in the next few weeks, with the law taking force within several months.

Both versions reduce penalties for piracy to the equivalent of a traffic offense; require software makers to give the government details of the inner workings of their programs; and create an agency to rule on important digital copyright issues.

That agency will decide how many times a consumer can copy digital music files for personal use and, in the Senate version, will ensure that music bought from one online service can be played on any device.

“We have nothing to add at this point,” Alan Hely, a spokesman for Apple in Europe, said in an e-mail message, “as the discussions and voting continues” until May 30.

Vivendi Universal and Time Warner joined Apple in lobbying against the bill. The government championed the law as a way of encouraging innovation in Internet distribution models and the diversity of offerings.

The law will set France apart from many Western countries, especially the United States, in its positions on copyright law, digital copying and piracy, several critics said.

“This law risks removing all deterrence against piracy,” said Olivia Regnier, who represents record labels as the European regional counsel for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.