Your iPod's songs — played on a Walkman?
By John Ward Anderson
By John Ward Anderson
PARIS — All is not well in the French world of digital music, as Nicolas Paitre, a salesman at one of Paris' largest electronics stores, hears from customers every day.
Filing into Surcouf, a glitzy French electronics chain where Paitre specializes in digital music gadgets, they have the same bewildered looks and exasperated queries:
I can download digital songs from one company, but I can't play them on another company's machine?
My hard drive with all my music files crashed, and I can't transfer the songs from my handheld into a new computer?
Oui, and oui again. The legal and technical issues of protecting music copyrights are so complex, Paitre said, that many music lovers "feel stuck in the middle" and eventually are forced into trying to foil the protections on their own.
Now France's National Assembly has crafted legislation to force compatibility between digital songs and the different machines that play them. Under the proposed law, Apple Computer Inc., Sony Corp., Dell Inc. and other companies could have to reveal trade secrets of their software so that their songs can play on competitors' devices.
Laypeople call it the iPod bill, after Apple's hugely successful digital music player. The tiny device plays songs downloaded from Apple's online music store embedded with code that prevents them from being played on anything other than an iPod. Many American music lovers also complain about this incompatibility, but haven't been able to get Congress behind them.
French lawmakers say their bill is enlightened consumerism for cutting-edge technology, an effort to force Apple and other companies to freely compete, rather than relying on techno-secrets to crush the competition.
"We oppose the idea that the seller of a song or any kind of work can impose on the consumer the way to read it, forever, and especially in the consumer's home," said Assembly member Christian Paul. "Can we allow a couple of vendors to establish monopolies tightly controlling their clients and excluding competition?"
After the bill first came to light, Apple denounced it as "state-sponsored piracy." Without encryption, the company argued, people would be able to digitally transfer music to one another for free, without paying royalties to the artists, and in violation of copyright laws. Industry analysts say the company might withdraw its music products from France rather than submit to the law. After its initial remarks, Apple has refused comment on the legislation.
The Assembly's proposal is "about ripping off technology from those who developed it and putting it in the public domain," said Francisco Mingorance, European policy director for the Business Software Alliance, which represents Apple, Dell, Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and other major companies.
"It's more than just Apple. What's been adopted is a broad, sweeping exception to intellectual property rights and patents and software under the flag of interoperability between an iPod and your Sony," he said.
In the midst of the debate, the French Senate passed a version of the bill with changes that consumer advocates say would gut it. According to Loic Dachary, vice president of the Free Software Foundation France, the Senate bill would leave computer companies with too much control over hardware and software.
"From a citizen's point of view, it's like having a policeman in your machine who has all the power," he said. "If Apple is allowed to keep its secrets, then no other programs can interact with their programs. This is not competition, this is software totalitarianism."