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French consumer group sues Apple, Sony

Alleges iTunes-iPod tie-in is anti-competitive

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A French consumer group has initiated legal proceedings against Apple and Sony, claiming their online music sites violate European anti-trust legislation.

We've seen this kind of silliness before. Like California resident Thomas Slattery, who filed a similar complaint against Apple in January, Paris-based UFC-Que Choisir claims that Apple's iTunes Music Store and Sony's Connect service are anti-competitive because they only work with the companies' own music players.

This is, of course, nonsense. In Apple's case songs can be downloaded and played on any Windows PC - a kind of machine the company does not itself produce. Sony Connect songs can similarly be downloaded and played on any PC - it doesn't have to be a Sony Vaio. To be fair, UFC-Que Choisir's complaint focuses on portable players, but since Apple has allowed Motorola to build an ITMS-compatible phone, its argument looks weak.

Apple can also argue that the French government's anti-trust watchdog has already ruled that it has a right to maintain a proprietary link between its music store and the iPod. Last November, the watchdog dismissed an attempt by Virgin's French retail subsidiary, VirginMega, to force Apple to license the Mac maker's FairPlay DRM technology, which would be essential to allow any third-party device to play ITMS-downloaded songs.

The organisation noted that Apple's policy was disadvantageous for consumers, but that VirginMega had not provided convincing evidence that the policy was actually harmful to competition. No wonder: VirginMega sells songs encoded using Windows Media DRM and compression technology which aren't compatible with the iPod and Mac computers.

Most third-party music player makers also seem unwilling to licence the AAC audio format Apple uses, which along with Apple's FairPlay, would be necessary to build ITMS compatibility into their products.

Sony and Apple will have to answer the claim in the French court later this year, Apple in Paris, Sony in Nanterre, French newspaper Les Echos reported this morning.

UFC-Que Choisir wants the two companies to open up their music stores to other device makers and to cough up €30,000 ($38,595) in compensation. ®

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