Music vendors versus France

France is proposing to legalize transcoding between audio formats, including those protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM). I say, don't sweat the little stuff. This proposal won't have much effect on the state of the digital music industry.

As most of you already know, the French government is proposing to legalize the conversion of audio media from one format to another, including media that is DRM-protected. This is a climbdown from earlier versions of the law, which would have legalized file trading in exchange for a flat-rate "culture fee" per song downloaded. Legalization hasn't been necessary to enable DRM-hacking efforts thus far... This earlier proposal was vehemently opposed by well-known French music artists such as Johnny Hallyday, someone I hadn't heard of, either, until I moved to Switzerland and learned that he's like the Elvis of the French-speaking world.

The details of the proposed rules are a bit fuzzy in the articles I've read thus far. From what I understand, however, it doesn't sound like the wrecking ball the original proposal would have been.

All it appears to do is legalize format conversion. It doesn't mean that you can legally put that converted file on a file trading network (at least, under the current version of the law). It also doesn't appear to require that music sites actually make that conversion possible. If a DRM solution IS truly unhackable (and that, admittedly, remains to be seen), nothing will prevent them from continuing to release media in that "unbreakable" format. All it means is that Joe Hacker, should he or she find a flaw, is free to release that software and make it available to everyone else.

Frankly, legalization hasn't been necessary to enable DRM-hacking efforts thus far, and I don't see how legalization would change things that dramatically. Granted, the fruits of hacking labors would be more easily available, as such conversion software could be found on a French server that are beyond the reach of (mostly) American companies hoping to shut down distribution of such tools.

Then again, legalization would also mean companies could legally create such conversion software, introducing the possibility that real capital could be thrown at finding flaws in DRM solutions. Given the motivational power of profit incentives, that could have some effect.

Even so, the French proposal actually doesn't concern me that much. A proposal that included a "culture fee" set by the French government as compensation for artists' works that are "traded" online would have resulted in many pages of bile-colored ink (and what color might that be, I have no idea). If I have trouble with government "wrecking balls" applied to market structures under the trappings of antitrust, I certainly have problems with a solution that involves bureaucratic price-fixing and denying artists the right to control what is charged for their work.

The new French law may cause the struggle between DRM-protected content and those hoping to break it to become more intense, but that's life on the technology battlefield.

Does that mean I support the law as currently phrased (or how I imagine it was phrased, as again, I haven't been able to track down sufficient information). Not necessarily. For the handful of legitimate reasons to hack the DRM on a song (to enable playback on all your personal devices, as an example), realistically speaking, most uses won't be so legitimate.

But don't sweat the little stuff. One thing I learned from my time in the French-speaking part of Switzerland was that the French government can be counted upon to vote upon economic policies that I will find to be incredibly weird. This one is mild by comparison.

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