Norway's top consumer advocate said Monday that he will ask a government court to force Apple to open the iTunes music store to users who own music players other than the iPod.
"It's a consumer's right to transfer and play digital content bought and downloaded from the internet to the music device he himself chooses to use," said Bjorn Erik Thon, Norway's consumer ombudsman. "iTunes makes this impossible or at least difficult, and hence, they act in breach of Norwegian law."
He has been pressing Apple for more than two years to drop its anti-copying digital rights management (DRM) technology from all iTunes tracks so that the music can be loaded onto rivals' devices. "I've been quite happy with the progress with Apple on other issues, but not on the one regarding DRM, which is the most important to consumers," Thon said.
He last met with Apple in February, when the company told him it shared his aim of interoperability. Since then, however, there has been no progress, said Thon. "So we will ask for a prohibition of the practice that you're only allowed to play music from iTunes on an iPod," said.
By submitting the case to Norway's Market Council - a governmental court that has the ability to issue binding rulings - Thon hopes to pressure Apple into opening iTunes. The Market Council would likely reach a decision by next summer after collecting written briefs from both parties in January and hearing oral arguments in March or April 2009. The Market Council could fine Apple if it did not comply with its ruling.
Thon declined to specify the size of the fine he would request, but said it would probably set a Norwegian record. "Size matters when it comes to the amount of the fine, and Apple is by far the biggest company that has been involved in a case," he said. "It should be a significant amount, but whether it's 100,000, 200,000, 300,000, 400,000 Euros, I couldn't say."
The case could have an impact beyond Norway, Thon added, noting that consumer agencies in Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries are behind him. He said he would reach out to others, including colleagues in Italy and Sweden, to get their support as well.
"I'm quite optimistic that if we win this case, the European Union will have a look at this and make this EU policy," said Thon. In July, he met with Meglena Kuneva, the EU's consumer commissioner, who expressed interest in the Norwegian effort to get Apple to open iTunes. "I will follow up with her, and keep in close contact in the months to come," he promised.
Apple has made some moves to free iTunes-purchased tracks from its iPod line of players, including selling some DRM-free music starting in May 2007.
Last January, Apple bent to EU pressure when it promised lowered prices of iTunes downloads in the UK to match what it charges in 16 European countries. In return, the EU's antitrust agency dropped its investigation into the company's pricing practices. In the end, of course, Apple failed to lower UK music prices, arguing that the change in exchange rates had harmonised prices across Europe.