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Irreconcilable Differences


The French have a lot to answer for these days: French youth recently started rioting upon being informed that they may really have to work for a living; minorities in Parisian suburbs are upset about years of institutional racism; the rest of the world considers the French to be insufferable, vain, cheese-eating surrender monkeys; and the French language sounds really horrible in hiphop songs.

So, in the midst of all this, the French decide to throw themselves into the middle of the Digital Rights Management debate. The lower house of French Parliament has just passed a law that requires every maker and distributor of digital media to make details of copy-protection schemes available to competitors, and to force interoperability among digital formats.

The problem that the French seek to fix is very real, as anybody who’s spent time trying to navigate the world of “legitimate” digital music downloads knows. The problem is that songs downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store only play on Apple iPods, songs in Microsoft’s Windows Media format can’t play on iPods, and Windows-based devices can’t play iTunes songs. Then there is Rhapsody’s Real Player program, which can only play .rm files. And on and on and on.

So everybody’s got their own formats, which all are configured to stop you from sharing the music you just bought. Competition for the sales of digital music, to the extent that there is any, exists on the player level—once you’ve bought your portable music player, you’re pretty much locked in to one format, and there’s typically only one place to go get your music from. Wanna switch devices? Kiss your library goodbye. Wanna give a song to your sister? She better have the same player as you, bubba.

Not only is this a monumental pain in the ass for the consumer and a trap for the unwary, it is criminally anti-competitive. The much beloved Apple iPod dominates the gizmo market and, largely because of that, the iTunes store controls something like 85 percent of the digital-download market. Don’t you think online music would be cheaper if there were 10 stores out there ready to fill up your iPod, not just one? And don’t you think the incentive to go to the free sites to get “illegal” music would be lessened if the legit market were less monolithic?

So all the French are trying to do is to get all of these devices to just get along. If you own an iPod, or a Creative player, or some zizzed-up cell-phone, the French think you should be able to buy your music from any number of online stores, and, once you own a song, you should be able to move it around.

Makes sense to me. Mais non! Bonjour, le reality!

Apple, which has the most to lose at the moment, went predictably berserk, screaming about government meddling with the free market and calling the French proposal (which won’t actually become law unless the upper house of French Parliament approves is, and that won’t be until at least May) “state sanctioned piracy.” I’m not exactly sure how they got there, but the word being spread around is that this forced sharing of DRM information will make it easier for bad people to strip the digital protections off of the music files, and make it easier for people to post and trade the files on the “illegal” sites. It will make it easier for the music to be free, which as we all know, it wants to be anyway.

Many commentators expect Apple will simply close its French iTunes store, and the predicted result of this will be that French music fans will then flock to the “illegal sites” to get music for their beloved iPods.

Mon Dieu!

The problem with these threats and dire predictions, of course, is that all of this precious music is already on the illegal sites, and French music fans, like music fans everywhere, are already flocking to them. Illegal downloads outnumber paid downloads by something like 80 to 1. The legal-download space, as an industry, has an incredible uphill battle in front of it. And it’s not going to win by internecine warfare, by screwing around with consumer’s choices, and by continued monopoly pricing.

The French are on to something here, and rumor has it that other EU countries are looking hard at the issue as well. I hope they don’t back down from all the high-tech saber rattling. They just might teach us all something about competition and freedom.

Merci, mon cyber-freres!

—Paul Rapp

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