Mac Musings

iTunes and the French Interoperability Law

Daniel Knight - 2006.07.05

Leave it to the French to interoperability a requirement for digital music downloads. After all, they gave the world the metric system, replacing dozens (if not hundreds) of different systems of weights and measured used throughout Europe (and eventually almost the entire world outside of the US).

The Metric System

Napoleon Bonaparte had a problem: Not only was Europe carved up into dozens of nations and hundreds of principalities, duchies, and the like, but every area had its own system of weights and measures that had evolved over centuries. And, as those who crossed the US/Canada border before Canada went metric realize, a 12 ounce bottle of beer or a gallon of gas is a different size in each nation despite sharing exactly the same name.

Add to the language problems, and you have some idea of the logistics Napoleon had to deal with when conquering Europe. France adopted the metric system in 1795 and imposed it on the peoples it subjected. Although there was a backlash after Napolean's defeat, eventually all of Europe became metric.


The metric system provided a great measure of interoperability to Europe in the 19th century and the world over the course of the 20th century. (Perhaps in the 21st century the US will finally get on board.) A liter of olive oil, a kilo of copper, or a meter of cloth was the same everywhere.

The metric system didn't evolve. It was created artificially and imposed from the top down, and it may be the greatest thing the French have ever given the world.

In the English speaking world, the metric system was slow to take hold, and as far as establishing standards is concerned, the US has very much had a hands-off approach since the Reagan era.

Let the Market Decide

LPs vs. 45s. 8-track vs. cassette. Beta vs. VHS. Nikon vs. Canon. Ford vs. GM.

Especially in the freewheeling capitalist, consumerist North American society, the customer was allowed to make many choices based on the principles of freedom, competition, and the idea that the best product would eventually win.

Here in the States we never said that 8-track tapes had to play in cassette decks, that Nikon lenses had to fit Canon cameras, that GM engines had to fit inside Fords, or the Macs had to read DOS floppies. That's not the way we work here, and that's exactly the kind of situation we're seeing with two competing DRM standards for digital music. Apple's FairPlay and Microsoft's PlaysForSure are incompatible by design.

The freewheeling capitalism has failed us at times. Where if AM stereo? It went nowhere when the FTC decided it was better to let the market choose among several competing standards, with the result that nobody bought stereo AM radios because there was no standard.

And why are there two incompatible satellite radio systems? Again, because the US government hasn't mandated a standard.

The personal computer market has by-and-large chosen Microsoft Windows over the Mac OS and Linux. While some governments mandate use of Windows or Linux, nobody mandates the level of interoperability between these operating systems - but there is a market advantage to interoperability.

Different Philosophies

The US is not averse to imposing changes, such as moving the entire television industry to digital later this decade, but that's been the exception rather than the rule since the 1980s.

The French have long imposed standards, such as the metric system and now digital music downloads, that would create interoperability.

Now these philosophies are clashing. Both Apple and Microsoft have created closed systems, and the market has embraced the iPod/iTunes solution. No government has said there has to be a single standard for protected tunes.

The French haven't gone there, but their new law says that systems must be interoperable. That means tracks purchased from the iTunes Music Store have to be usable on non-Apple MP3 players. And it must also mean that tracks with Windows DRM will have to be usable on iPods, an interesting thought that the press seems to be widely ignoring.

While I believe standards and interoperability are important things, I also believe that they should be imposed only where there is an unfair burden on the public. Dealing with dozens of systems of weights and measure or hundreds of different time zones (as the railroads had to do in 19th century America) creates a costly burden.

Not being able to play iTMS tracks on a PlaysForSure player or Windows DRM tracks on an iPod does not create such a burden, so just as the French have not mandated that Windows PCs be compatible with Macs, there should be no mandate that FairPlay-protected tracks play on systems without FairPlay DRM.

My Advice

If I were Steve Jobs, I'd cut my losses and shut down the French iTunes Music Store. "Sorry, folks, but our agreements with the record labels include the use of FairPlay DRM. If we break that protection, we break our contracts. So no iTMS for you, France."

Suddenly the shoe would be on the other foot. Instead of unemployed French youth protesting Apple's DRM, iPod owners and iTMS customers would be protesting the legislation that forced iTMS out of the French market. Believe me, they are a better financed constituency with a vested interest in keeping iTMS alive in France.

Interoperability is a ruse to break Apple's dominance in the digital music market one nation at a time, a dominance not imposed from above but created by those who buy iPods, download iTunes, and purchase iTracks.