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A key to Apple’s success

STEVE JOBS’ FABLED POWERS of persuasion -- known by some as the Apple reality-distortion field -- just aren’t as effective on the far side of the Atlantic. Government officials in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and France have been taking up one of consumers’ core complaints about Apple’s wildly popular iPods and online iTunes Music Store: They don’t work with competitors’ offerings. The efforts could lead the European Commission to seek compatibility requirements across the continent.

The European proposals are driven by a desire to protect consumers and small businesses in the market for online media, where restrictive new technologies to limit copying are being introduced. The latest French plan, however, would effectively give copyright holders veto power over the technology used to deter piracy. Giving record labels and Hollywood studios more leverage over tech companies does not seem to be the way to help music fans, movie buffs or innovative consumer-electronics companies.

At the heart of the issue is a confounding array of incompatible technologies used by online music stores and portable players. Major record companies insist that their songs have electronic locks, but there are at least four kinds of locks being used by online music stores. And Apple will not give other companies the key to its locks.

The French National Assembly passed a bill earlier this year that would have required companies that sell songs, movies or other copyrighted works with such locks to provide the keys to any company that wanted to create compatible devices. In other words, Apple would have been required to help other portable device makers build products that could play songs from Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

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Apple cried foul, leading analysts to predict that the company would close its French online music store rather than reveal its software secrets. French lawmakers responded with a proposal, to be voted on this week, that would force companies to give up the keys to their electronic locks unless copyright holders gave them permission not to. Under French law, that means artists whose music was being sold, along with their record companies and music publishers, would have to grant approval. And are those folks more likely to want new keys or higher royalty rates, the cost of which would be passed on to consumers?

Music buyers can already work around compatibility problems by burning the songs they purchase onto CDs and converting them to MP3 files without electronic locks. That’s a far better situation than having the government or copyright holders dictate which technologies will be allowed to compete. The best thing about the online music market is that it is rife with competition and innovation. That’s not a market that cries out for regulation -- even in France.


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