French digital music service Starzik has begun offering songs for sale without digital rights management attached.

While the service is available only in France, it provides some interesting insights into the European regulators' focus on forcing Apple to ensure it makes iTunes sales available for use on any portable device.

The French government has been pressing for free market liberalisation of the digital music market, applying pressure on online vendors such as Apple to ensure they sell tracks that can be used on the widest possible variety of music players.

Like most such services, iTunes offers songs that are wrapped up in a technology called digital rights management (DRM). DRM controls how end users can enjoy the music they own, and was applied at the insistence of the record labels, who claimed to be fearful that customers wouldn't respect the rights of their artists when legitimate and popular online purchasing services were made available.

Platform differences between Apple and Microsoft mean that both firms offer different and incompatible DRM systems. Apple's success in digital music (and its support of Windows) has transformed what could have become a niche DRM system into the de facto world standard.

Starzik is thinking differently, and has arranged a deal with independent digital music distributor, The Orchard, to offer a catalogue of 600,000 tracks in a slew of open, DRM-free formats. These tracks come from thousands of independent labels and three major labels.

Some industry observers regard the true digital music war as being between pirates and legitimate services. They argue that freeing content of DRM while making it legitimately available to buy will cut a huge chunk out of pirate downloads. Many pirates argue that they won't buy music that carries DRM.

Most of the tracks from French independent labels and all of The Orchard's 400,000 tracks will be available in the leading digital audio formats - MP3, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, AAC and WMA - without digital rights management.

In the UK, digital music services such as Wippit, TuneTribe and others already offer music in DRM-free formats. Wippit CEO Paul Myers recently observed that DRM-free tracks sell far more strongly through his service than protected tracks.

"The use of multiple, open formats will make Starzik content compatible with all the leading media players and portable devices, including the Apple iPod," Starzik said in a press release.

Starzik sells songs at €1 and albums at €9.

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