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Blanket digital licence fails in France

Carry on pirates, carry on DRM

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Under heavy pressure from the French government, the country's parliament has voted against introducing the world's first blanket licence for sharing digital media. A section that would have permitted internet users to freely exchange copyrighted material, effectively legitimizing file sharing, and hastening the demise of digital rights management (DRM) software, had passed an earlier reading in a vote last December.

The measure proposed a levy of between €8 and €12 for a compensation pool, had won cross-party support - with strong backing from the left, the Greens, and the centre right UDF inside parliament- as well as the backing of consumer groups. MPs walked out in protest after the blanket license proposal was struck down, AFP reports, leaving the government to carry the day.

Although a similar model of compensation has been historically adopted for the public performance of recordings (such as in pubs), for radio, and most recently for satellite TV and webcasting, the consequences of the French vote would have been dramatic and far-reaching.

With a billion songs exchanged illegally each month on the P2P networks, the most immediate answer is that artists continue to lose out: it's taken Apple three years to sell a billion songs.

But the implications for technology companies would have been fairly immediate.

The need for digital rights management software would have vanished, replaced by an even more urgent need for the kind of counting technology being devised by Snocap. Snocap intends digital services companies that use its software - such as Mashboxx - to be able to identify the songs being traded on the illegal networks and turn them into legitimate transactions. Today's digital music services, which offer a limited choice, encumbered with digital restrictions, all for a much higher subscription "fee", would have had to drastically alter their business models. They'd find themselves in the business of collecting "finder's fees", earned good editorial judgement and fulfulling music lover's needs - rather than services based on artificial scarcity, and technological restrictions.

Direct compensation through a broadband fee works out much cheaper to the citizen than a commercial for-profit service. In his book Promises To Keep published last year, Professor Terry Fisher of the Berkman Center at Harvard Law School estimates that a $6 per month fee for broadband users would compensate both the recording and movie companies for 20 per cent of their revenue - more than they've ever claimed they lost through digital piracy.

But the strongest opposition came from the record labels at the top of the physical distribution chain - with the most vociferous opposition coming from the biggest- Universal Music Group.

Speaking at the Digital Music Forum in New York a fortnight ago, flat fee advocate and former Geffen executive Jim Griffin said he could see why UMG opposed a blanket license.

"I agree with Larry Kenswil [UMG's digital supremo] - this would be bad for Universal. When you've reached 30 per cent market share, when you've pulled off the last big merger, when you've built up the barriers, there's not a lot of benefit from equalizing access," he said.

"But what's good for UMG isn't good for everyone else."

For now the prosecutions, the DRM, and the illegal file sharing which leaves artists with no reward - all look set to continue. However, France's long debate is sure to embolden campaigners, as it makes the once unthinkable suddenly seem very practical. And next to the value proposition of a flat license - wider choice at a lower cost - even the best of today's digital subscription services look pretty shabby. ®

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