Loading the iPod With Egalitarianism

Nicolas Paitre, 24, who sells digital music machines in Paris, says his customers are frustrated by the lack of compatibility among brands.
Nicolas Paitre, 24, who sells digital music machines in Paris, says his customers are frustrated by the lack of compatibility among brands. (By John Ward Anderson -- The Washington Post)

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By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 26, 2006

PARIS -- All is not well in the French world of digital music, as Nicolas Paitre, a salesman at one of Paris's 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 the business of trying to foil the protections on their own.

Now comes France's National Assembly to the rescue, or so claim lawmakers who have 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 complain about this incompatibility, too, 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. "Businesses in France are going to have to ask themselves a question: Is our continuing presence in the French market outweighed by the risks of disclosing our content to more piracy?"

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."

Both versions would decriminalize piracy and make it equivalent to a traffic infraction, with fines that computer companies say are so small they would offer no deterrence. Software companies complain that the law could hold them accountable for piracy that occurs with use of their products, even if that is not the purpose of the software.

The debate pits French egalitarianism and its tilt toward consumers and regulation against American capitalism and its tilt toward business and markets. Also in the mix is a dose of French nationalism and concern about the U.S. dominance of cyberspace.

"The idea in France is to protect consumers, but in the U.S., it would be seen as short-term protection, because if you are forced to share the technology you developed with others, that stifles the incentives to innovate and invest," said Andrea Renda, an economic and legal analyst at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. "In France, there is a tendency to protect competitors, not just competition. It's very short-sighted."

Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute of International Relations, said that "in France, it is the state which is responsible for great technical innovations, and there is also an emphasis on what is called 'cultural diversity' -- the idea that you must have more than one source of national expertise, and that in particular, you should not let America monopolize the technologies of the future."

French President Jacques Chirac feels strongly about those issues, analysts said. Fearing that Internet search engines -- particularly Google and Yahoo -- are heavily biased toward British and American culture and sensibilities, he has proposed the development of a "European search engine" known as Quaero (Latin for "I seek"). The public-private venture could cost $1.2 billion or more.

Chirac is also a driving force behind the public-private development of a $300 million, 6 million-title European Digital Library as an alternative to Google's proposed digitization of 15 million books from collections at Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the New York Public Library and Oxford University.

France supports the European Union's efforts to strip the United States of its effective technical control of the Internet and turn over regulatory oversight to an international body, perhaps the United Nations. Chirac has also pushed for a state-funded, French-language alternative to CNN and the BBC that is scheduled to be launched later this year.

"In France, there are two distinct mentalities," said Christian Vanneste, the National Assembly sponsor of the iPod bill. "On one side is the backwards left, which is anti-American, and on the other is the right, which thinks that the U.S.A. shouldn't be the only one with good ideas, and who want to compete with them."

The two versions of the bill that have passed the National Assembly and Senate now await reconciliation in a conference committee.

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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