The Web is buzzing about Apple being about to abandon the French market, due to a French law that would force them to open their DRM. Om Malik writes the French desire to get rid of DRM absolutely ridiculous. Engadget writes French National Assembly approved an ostensibly anti-DRM bill against Apple, and these are just two examples of many on-line articles.

As always, things are actually much more complex than this. Actually, the whole issue is extremely complex. On one hand, you have the music industry and its software allies (Microsoft, Apple and DRM manufacturers) willing to make DRM-cracking illegal, calling downloaders thieves (or worse), and on the other hand, you have consumers, libraries and Open Source developers who fight DRM as they understand that they would hurt them in one way or another.

I hope that people involved in this issue will pardon me for oversimplifying. This said, let's see why some people are against DRM:

  • Public libraries are concerned to become obsolete if DRMs prevent them from lending content to users
  • Consumer advocates fight so that the legal right for private copies (copie privée in French, similar to Fair Use in US law) remains legally possible so that you can listen to your music on every device you own
  • Open Source software developers are threatened in their business as the initial draft of the bill would actually put them in legal trouble. (Additionally, reading a DVD on a Linux computer is potentially illegal before the law passed, and reading digital media would become impossible on a Linux system).

So there has been a huge fight of influence over the pasts months. The music industry is, of course much wealthier and structured than its opponents, and has managed to get its point into the first draft of the law, and the government tried to have the law voted the day before Christmas, using an emergency procedure. This failed miserably, thanks to thousands of citizens who have spent a lot of time calling their député (representative at the chamber) and making sure the law would not be adopted as is. The law was amended to a point that almost made peer-to-peer legal in France which, considering the initial text, was a disaster, from the government and music industry point of view.

Since then, a new version of the law has been discussed, with a few minor improvements over the first version. During the vote, some amendments have been proposed and adopted, including the one that makes Apple, Microsoft and a few other people a tad upset. This amendment is to defend interoperability., the arm of the French chapter of FSF has details about the interoperability amendment (emphasis is mine):

On the very good side, in a last theatral move at 2am this morning, deputies have had a second deliberation on the article that defines DRMs (actually as written in EUCD "effective technical measures of protection"). On December there was already an amendment excluding from this definition, any protocol, format, or method for scrambling, encrypting or modifying. Also in December, an amendment included some kind of Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory (RAND) licence, and the appeal had to be made with a Competivity Council, which is something out-of reach for non-commercial entities and SMEs. And this night, interoperability was secured, with very good amendments forbiding a DRM to prevent interoperability. Also anyone can resquest a judge to force DRM providers to give information for interoperability at no costs but logistical ones. Also an amendment was voted to allow publication of source code of any independant software that interoperate with a DRM.

It is to be noted that cracking DRM in order to duplicate files and distribute them is illegal. It's actually punished by a EUR 300,000 fine and 3 years of prison for publishing a product which is "obviously intended" to provide the public with some unauthorised copyrighted works!

In order to fully understand the importance of this decision, I encourage you to read Wired's How France Is Saving Civilization.

Interestingly enough, Macworld quotes an analyst saying that French digital music law could make a more powerful Apple. And it makes sense: I strongly suspect that Apple knows that DRMs are bad for business, and has agreed to include them in order to provide the music industry with the garantees they wanted in order to sign deals with the iTunes Music Store. Apple may cry right now, but it may be fake tears...

Update: Christian Paul, one of the representative behind the interoperability amendment has published an analysis in English on his blog, Interoperability : freedom for consumers and innovators

The idea is three-fold (shamelessly copy/pasted from his blog for your viewing pleasure):

  1. we want to protect consumers' freedom of choice and privacy. We oppose the idea that the seller of a song or any other kind of work can impose on the consumer the way to read it, forever, and especially in consumer's home. It is essential to assure that the consumer can choose whatever device she likes, just as she can use her favorite hi-fi today and does not have to buy a new one for each vendor.
  2. we want to keep the market free and open. Instead of legally enforcing artificial monopolies, we prefer to create an environment where every innovator has a chance. To do so, innovators need some information on how to interoperate with existing devices. To assure that small innovators can enter the market, we do not want this information to be expensive. As we are discussing an essential freedom here - the one to create and innovate - we estimated that the only acceptable price is: without charge.
  3. we want to protect free (as in freedom) software developers. Many of them are individuals coding for fun, not for profit. Getting information required for interoperability without charge is key to them. They must also be able to publish the source code of software interoperating with any DRM. We have put this last guarantee in law.

His conclusion is interesting:

Let's put it more simply: Can we allow a couple of vendors to establish monopolies tightly controlling their clients and excluding competition? I think that no American can wish for that. Neither Apple, nor Microsoft, nor anyone else is threatened by this law if they intend to play fairly with competitors and consumers. If Apple wants to remain a big player, it will have to innovate and continue providing exciting new products. This is a good news for consumers, who will get better, cheaper competition. And it is also a great news in the long term for Apple.