French approve weakened iPod law

French legislators gave final approval last week to a new copyright law that could — under certain conditions — force Apple Computer to make songs purchased from its iTunes Music Store compatible with music players of its rivals. But the legislation is full of loopholes, making that result unlikely.

The Senate and the National Assembly both voted to approve the law, which will also reduce the penalties for the illegal downloading of music to, as the New York Times reported, “little more than a parking fine.” The law could go into effect within a month.

Legal experts and industry lobbyists told the Times that the new law is a weak compromise that would make it difficult to achieve the goal of the legislation — to force Apple, or other companies with proprietary music formats, to make their offerings compatible with rivals' digital music devices.

While the law states that copy protection software cannot hinder access to a legally purchased digital work, there are a number of conditions that must be met before a company such as Apple is required to change its format. One way that Apple can protect itself from forced interoperability, for example, is by having musicians agree that music sold on iTunes can not be converted to other formats, the newspaper said.

Additionally, rivals seeking to make their devices compatible with songs from iTunes must convince a newly created regulatory authority that interoperability will not infringe on patents or other rights belonging to Apple.

The vote brought to an end more than six months of heated debate in Europe over whether governments should mandate access to digital media content.