Controversial French Copyright Law Takes Effect, to Industry Dismay

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PARIS -- Software publishers and Socialist Party members are among the groups unhappy with the new French copyright law that took effect today. French Internet surfers could now go to prison for downloading copyrighted music files without authorization, while companies such as Apple Computer, which make or use DRM (digital rights management) technology to protect music downloads, may have to provide details of their DRM system to their competitors in the interests of interoperability.

Though the law is intended to protect copyright material, it will, in effect, actually undermine copy-protection efforts, according to The Business Software Alliance (BSA), a group of software publishers. The BSA's main criticism is that the law requires makers of copy protection software to disclose information about their security technologies.


The BSA slammed the law as inconsistent with European intellectual property rules--the very rules that the law is supposed to transpose into French jurisprudence--and said it stands in stark contrast to France's history as a champion of authors' rights.

For the BSA, the law's requirements for copyright-protection makers also threatens the confidence that consumers have in online commerce. The BSA represents IT companies including Apple, Microsoft, Symantec, RSA Security, and SAP. Apple criticized measures in early drafts of the law to mandate DRM interoperability for online music stores as "state-sponsored piracy."

Political Controversy

Meanwhile the Socialist Party, the main opposition group in the French parliament, has announced that it will replace the law if it wins power in next year's national and presidential elections.

The Socialist Party's spokesperson for media and cultural affairs, Anne Hidalgo, wrote Wednesday that the law fails to balance the rights of content creators with the freedom of choice of Internet users in how they access that content--for example, content owners want to use DRM technology to protect their products, but consumers should still be allowed to choose the devices or software they use to play such content. DRM systems that aren't interoperable tie them to the platform chosen by the vendor.

While one group sees the law as giving too much access to DRM technology, and the other as giving too little, both agree that it's bad for confidence in online business.

Fines Possible Under New Law

Now that the law is in effect, Internet users who download copyrighted music files using P-to-P (peer to peer) file-sharing software technically could face prison terms or fines of up to $640,000. However, the Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, the law's sponsor, has made clear that was not his intention.

The law passed by the French Senate and National Assembly punished such downloading with a fine of about $45, but the Constitutional Council ruled that article of the law unconstitutional, because it led to different sentences for the same crime, depending on whether the unauthorized downloads were made using P-to-P software or, for example, FTP (File Transfer Protocol) software. De Vabres said he will ask the Minister of Justice, Pascal Clément, to reserve prison sentences for only the most serious cases.

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