29 March 2006

France and DRM

I've been struggling to understand what exactly it is that the French parliament has done. Most articles I've seen have focussed almost entirely on the impact on the Apple/iPod/iTunes business. Of course, the law is not about that per se.

There appears to be a lot of rejoicing people as well - those who think it means the end of DRM, and those who'd like to stop an Apple monopoly in music from taking hold (though I haven't heard the same arguments applied to stopping the Microsoft monopoly that actually exists and harms). Anything that has those two camps together has got to be suspect!

I came across this article in Tidbits yesterday by Kirk McElhearn who resides in France. It is the best article I've read on the subject and raises many interesting points, and is pretty fairly written.

The FT's Lex also had some interesting things to say about it (though even Lex concentrated on the Apple element). A subscription is required for the full article but this highlight seemed very true:

The risk is that the proposed legislation proves too blunt an instrument. In such a fast-moving industry it could have unforseen affects on many different companies and possibly on innovation in general. Better to encourage innovative companies by protecting their intellectual property and letting the market work it out. If that fails, and dominant companies start to abuse their power, competition authorities should intervene aggressively. Apple is not there yet.

Before the anti-DRM brigade get too carried away though, it is worth them exploring what open source developers in France have said about the law (they are horrified). This article from Infoworld is useful reading.

I would be very sceptical that this is a law brought in to help consumers. That is rarely the way things work in France. It is more likely to protect it's own industries (stand up Vivendi) and culture. Remember that this is a country that levies significant taxes on every blank CD sold (so damn you if you want to back up your hard drive or your photo collection). That's not an action of a pro-consumer nation. And I would also be very wary in general of any law that is brought in by politicians that relates to technology.

If this ever makes it to the statute books in anything like it's current form, look for people to rue the decision in a few years time when it will have hurt France's software industry, hurt the consumer, held back innovation, and held back the old industries from doing what they really should be doing, leaving France with more dinosaur corporations.

I would have preferred if, instead of looking to put limits and controls on DRM, the legislators looked at the fundamental problem of fair use and copyright in general. If that is addressed first, it is much easier to look at the DRM needed to make that work, and how it can be made universal (eg DRM conversion). The source of the problem is still with the way copyrights are handled which provides a single distribution monopoly (which is given out on a country by country basis in Europe despite the laws of the single market). This has not kept pace with what technology can offer and causes severe problems everytime a disruptive technology comes along (starting with the piano roll and including tape recording and video recording). The only winners from France's actions will be the (very) short term profits of the entertainment companies.

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