French Lawmakers Crack Open DRM

Michael Hayes
PARIS — With a show of hands, a vote by French lawmakers could dramatically reshape the use of digital rights management (DRM) technology worldwide.

Under the new law, companies doing business in France that employ DRM to protect their copyrighted material must provide technical information to their competitors wishing to create interoperable systems. However, the new law allows DRM technology developers to block the dissemination of their source code if they can show that publication would hurt their system security.

During the debate over the new legislation, Francisco Mingorance, the director of public policy of the Business Software Alliance, said that France’s decision could have irrevocable repercussions for DRM technology.

“Once you break copy protection technology and let the genie out of the bottle in France, there is no way back,” Mingorance said.

The new French law also establishes an as-yet-unnamed regulatory agency to oversee disputes arising between DRM technology companies and those requesting information for interoperability.

While the law puts pressure on DRM technology firms to cooperate, lawmakers meted out harsh penalties for those seeking to work outside the established legislative framework.

The law imposes fines and jail time for those who develop, publish, promote or distribute software “manifestly intended” for unauthorized distribution of copyrighted works. Violators could face up to three years in prison and a $375,000 fine.

Free software crusader Richard Stallman said that the French government’s decision to constrain open source developers could mark the death of peer-to-peer systems and software for decoding and playing DRM encrypted DVDs. Also at stake, according to Stallman, is the future of Linux.

"The simple fact of not having an application for watching DVDs could pose a big obstacle for the uptake of Linux,” Stallman said. “If you are prevented from supplying such an application, then people who don't appreciate freedom for its own sake will refuse to use Linux because of that.”