Laws in France kick Apple

I don’t think Steve Jobs said “Non!” but it captures the essence of Apple’s position on a digital rights management bill making its way through the French law-making process.

The lower house of the French parliament, the National Assembly, passed a bill last month that will require all proprietary DRM formats used on content sold in France to be cross-licensable between format owners. This will supposedly allow any vendor to translate any other vendor’s protected content into its own DRM format.

The intention of the bill is to ensure that content purchased from any online music service can be legally transferred and played on any digital music player.

Given that Apple’s iTunes owns about 70 per cent of the downloaded music market and has never licensed its FairPlay DRM to anyone, it isn’t surprising the company is not too happy about this nascent legislation. Reuters quoted Natalie Kerris, an Apple spokeswoman, as characterizing the proposed law as state-sponsored piracy.

Apple’s position is that should this law pass, “legal music sales will plummet just when legitimate alternatives to piracy are winning over customers.” Here’s what Apple really means: Our music sales will plummet because, even though our music is way too expensive, customers find iTunes easy to use and don’t know how to get around our DRM so they overlook the cost.

The question is, if the bill is ratified by the French upper house, the Senate, what will Apple do? Shut down its French operations? Non! Open its DRM format?

What Apple should do is the latter, as the argument for DRM as a market control strategy is flawed. For a start, the goal of a DRM policy is not the management of publishers’ rights, it’s the restriction of consumers’ rights. But the biggest flaw is that DRM can’t be implemented successfully. You want to break Apple’s AAC format, which uses DRM? Easy — burn the tracks you want to a CD and then rip the CD to another format. Sure, this hack is as elegant as me dancing the tango, but it gets the job done.

And as we saw with the Sony BMG fiasco, enforcing DRM is incredibly complicated and difficult to do without something going horribly wrong. The truth is the only thing that makes DRM work is sloth or ignorance because, if the cost of defeating DRM in terms of money or knowledge is higher than the cost of the content, then DRM will win. If it isn’t, DRM loses.

What Apple fails to realize is that the French legislation merely hastens the inevitable: At some point the shine will fade off the iTunes-iPod world and consumers will get what they want — low-cost content and content portability. If Apple is smart (and given its history of getting its own way, it probably won’t be), it will get there first and never run the risk of losing market share.

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–Open your format to backspin@ or on Gibbsblog, we don’t care which.

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