Vive les Copies! French Legislation Tackles Copyright

Article ImageThe French minister of culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, has a growing controversy on his hands: the DADVSI law on copyright in the digital age. The most contentious aspect of the DADVSI law is the attempt to curb illegal downloading of music and movies via P2P programs through the use of Digital Rights Management (DRM). This has caused uproar among the Internet-using public and divided the governing political party representatives in the national assembly.

In late December 2005, when the DADVSI law was put to vote for the first time, representatives in the national assembly went so far as to pass an article to be added to the law that did away with the controversial DRM proposal and opted for the equally controversial global license concept. Instead of attempting to halt P2P use, global licensing would have increased monthly Internet access fees from two to six euros a month. In exchange, Internet users would have been granted the right to unlimited P2P downloading.

The disagreement over the inclusion of DRM use in the DADVSI law is understandable for a number of reasons. First off, the French hold dear their right to private use. At the moment in France, no legislation restricts users from making copies of video and audio works for private use (i.e., for one's own use or for friends and family). Currently, there is a tax on all blank CDs, DVDs, and video and audio cassettes, which is then distributed to French performers, as is the case in the United States. Bruce Sunstein, head of the Patent Practice Group of the Boston-based law firm Bromberg & Sunstein, explains, "In the U.S., legislation enacted before the rise of the Internet and developed to deal with digital audio tape recorders also sanctioned noncommercial recording of music, with a scheme that in effect placed a tax on forms of recording media."

Given this precedent, downloading a song or a movie for private use should be allowed for most French Internet users. The fear is that if the DADVSI becomes law, private copying will no longer be legal. According to Tristan Nitot, president of Mozilla France and a well-known blogger, "DRMs aim at making copying impossible . . . and are incompatible with the right to fair use."

The other main sticking point with DRMs is their general lack of interoperability. And, perhaps more importantly, as Nitot explains, "Linux machines cannot read any media protected by DRMs." Since the DADVSI law makes it a criminal offense to crack a DRM program, as well as share the crack code, it basically ignores open source users.

In response to the general unease surrounding this law, the ministry of culture set up two Web sites. One, hosted on the ministry's official site (, uses video clips of everyday folk asking questions about the law. The other ( is co-run by two government ministries and two major artist organizations. It is touted as a forum for open discussion between the public, concerned artists, and the government, but many are questioning this claim. Alternative sites, such as, have sprung up where discussion about the DADVSI law is lively and predominantly anti-DRM. Of course, the debate is also ongoing in the French blogosphere--something that Donnedieu de Vabres has not overlooked. After the December defeat of his version of the law, he invited eight influential bloggers to have lunch with him, likely in the hopes that they would temper the online debate.

Despite the controversy surrounding it, the DADVSI law does have some positive points. For one, it includes special copying concessions for handicapped technology users. The DADVSI law would also make the penalties for certain types of downloading and file sharing more realistic. For example, if you are caught downloading an album or a movie for private use, you would risk a relatively small EUR 38 fine, and that only after numerous warnings, instead of a steep fine and a prison term as is currently the case. It also provides for the creation of a non-government mediation council.

As of March 8, the global license article had been removed from the law. Despite the popularity and almost inevitability of P2P file sharing, DRM seems to be the route the government will take. Though even if the law is passed, the road to enforcement will be a bumpy one.