Recent revisions to a proposed French bill would seem to have spared companies like Apple from opening up their Digital Rights Management technology. But a more restrictive version could still be passed into law if the two houses of France's legislature are unable to reconcile the different bills each one passed. And until they do, the future of DRM in France remains very much up in the air.
The issue first arose in March, when the National Assembly - the lower house of the French legislature - passed a bill that would require Apple and other content providers to reveal details of their DRM technologies so that the media they sell can be made interoperable with any device.
"The National Assembly would like to require any DRM manufacturer to license its system so that any device manufacturer could implement it on its device," explained Michel Combot, North American regional information and communication technologies expert for the French Embassy. "So, if a customer bought a song through iTunes, he would be able to play on any iTunes-compatible device."
Such a law would force Apple to reveal and license its FairPlay technology to other vendors so that songs sold on the iTunes Music Store would run not just on iPods, but also on players by Creative, Samsung, Sony and others - assuming Apple didn't opt to abandon the French market entirely.
However, Apple seemed to catch a break when the Senate - France's upper house - passed a different version of the same bill. In this version, provisions would allow companies to keep their DRM technology a secret and limit interoperability by signing exclusive contracts with copyright owners.
Law making process murky
In the US Congress, differences between legislation passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate get reconciled by committee before being passed on to the president to sign into law. But in France, the two house of the legislature continue to work on the bill when they approve differing versions.
"Each chamber did vote on a different version of the bill and the Prime Minister has asked the National Assembly to vote a second time," Combot said. "Then the Senate will have to vote - and make amendments if needed - on the bill [passed] by the National Assembly."
That can go on, theoretically, as long as the two chambers fail to agree on a final version, Combot said. "But the government can ask, after each chamber has voted twice, for the chambers to work on a compromise, through a specific commission," he added.
However, if the two chambers can't reach an agreement that is approved by both, Combot said, the ultimate decision is up to the National Assembly - the same body that passed the original bill that would require Apple to open its DRM scheme and allow iTunes Music Store tracks to play on any device.
As of yet, the National Assembly has not set a date to take up the bill for a second time, which would be the next step in the process. However, it is expected to take up the matter sooner rather than later.
On the fast track
"The legislative agenda is quite crowded," Combot said. "But our Ministry of Culture, which is leading the project, is eager to go fast this time."
Even if the stalemate is ultimately decided by the National Assembly, that doesn't necessarily mean that the final version of the law would necessarily open up iTunes Music Store tracks up for devices other than the iPod,.
"I think some sort of compromise might be found on the DRM interoperability issue," Combot said. "Rather than putting in the law, the National Assembly might want to let an independent agency rule on that issue, giving it the power to decide or not to impose such measure, based on studies. This way, such decisions could be appealed and a real debate on the merits of such a decision with some economic and technological analysis might arise. "But," he added, "you never know with a political vote."