With a show of hands, French lawmakers approved a new copyright law on Friday, in a move that could have profound consequences for online music stores, open-source programmers, desktop Linux users and P-to-P (peer-to-peer) file sharers.
Companies that use DRM (digital rights management) technologies to protect music downloads will be required to provide information about their technology to competitors wishing to create interoperable systems. This would mean that Apple, for example, may have to relinquish its tight control of the FairPlay DRM technology it uses to tie songs downloaded from iTunes Music Store to its iTunes jukebox software and iPod music player.
So far, Apple has licensed the technology only to Motorola for use on a small number of mobile phones. Vendors that use DRM do have one way around the law: they can sell songs for proprietary systems as long as the copyright holders agree.
The French law on authors' rights orders the creation of a new regulatory authority to ensure companies using DRM respond to requests for interoperability information. DRM technology developers may prevent publication of source code based on the information they disclose if they can show that it hurts their system's security.
That's bad news for programmers wanting to distribute alternatives under an open-source licence, said noted free software campaigner Richard Stallman.
"If they are allowed to provide such information under NDA, then it would not be possible to develop free software using the information," since the NDA - or nondisclosure agreement - would forbid publication of the source code, Stallman said at a conference in Paris on Monday.
Under the law, anyone found guilty of developing, publishing, promoting or distributing software "manifestly intended" for the unauthorised distribution of copyright works will face three years in prison and a €300,000 fine. This could affect developers of P-to-P file sharing systems or of software for decoding and playing DVDs, which are encrypted using a DRM system.
The fact that it might become illegal to develop or distribute open-source DVD player software could make the popularisation of Linux operating systems on the desktop an even more remote possibility, some say.
"The simple fact of not having an application for watching DVDs could pose a big obstacle for the uptake of Linux. If you are prevented from supplying such an application, then people who don't appreciate freedom for its own sake will refuse to use Linux because of that," Stallman said Monday.
French consumers will still retain their right to make copies of copyright works for their own personal use, but instead of an unlimited number, as previously, the number of copies may now be limited by DRM. The regulatory authority will determine what limits DRM developers may impose.
The bitter but poorly attended debates on Friday bring to a close months of discussion of the law, which the government pushed through using emergency procedures to limit each house to a single reading of the bill instead of the usual two. Before it takes effect, the law must be signed by the President - but it may still face one additional hurdle. At least one opposition group, the Socialist Party, is reported to be considering referring the law to the Constitutional Council, which decides whether laws, and the procedures used to pass them, are constitutional.