Unauthorized sharing of copyright files will become a criminal offense, and those who reverse-engineer DRM systems will face six months in prison.
France's Constitutional Council has made a stringent new copyright law even harsher,
modifying three articles of the law and striking out a fourth in a review of its
The changes mean that unauthorized sharing of copyright files such as music tracks will
become a criminal offense, while those who reverse-engineer DRM (digital rights
management) systems in order to develop interoperable software will face six months in
prison and a fine of ?30,000 (US$36,000).
After the National Assembly and the Senate approved the law on June 30, members of the
opposition Socialist Party called on the Council to rule the law unconstitutional,
citing procedural irregularities in debate, and problems with 11 of the text's articles.
However, their appeal backfired: the Council refused to strike down the law in its
entirety, and while it accepted their complaints about four of the disputed articles,
the effect of the remedies it proposes is far from what the socialists intended.
The ruling has dismayed campaigners against the law, who saw the constitutional review
as a last chance to block the law before President Jacques Chirac signed it into effect.
Aziz Ridouan, president of the Association of Audio Surfers, wrote that as a result of
French Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres' repressive law, "12 million
French surfers risk five years in prison and a fine of ?500,000 each time they download
a file over the Internet."
Even Deputy Christian Vanneste, a member of the government majority who steered the law
through the National Assembly, regretted the ruling.
Among the benefits Vanneste referred to, the text voted on June 30 allowed an exemption
to the penalty for breaking DRM systems if it was done in order to develop interoperable
systems, and made unauthorized file sharing a civil matter, not criminal, with a penalty
of only ?38.
The socialists protested that Article 24 of the text made the law on copying of
protected copyright works for personal use unfair. It created an exemption for the use
of file-sharing software, making it a civil offense, but left other methods of copying
subject to criminal penalties for piracy, defined elsewhere. Copying music for personal
use is currently legal in France, and the price of all blank recording media, from
cassette tapes to flash memory sticks, includes a special levy that is used to
Rather than modify the article to treat all unauthorized copying of protected copyright
works for personal use as a civil offense, whatever the means employed, the Council
struck out the article in its entirety, exposing all online copying to criminal
The Council's decision undermines the assurances given by De Vabres, who said earlier
this year that the law offered a "measured response" to file sharing, and that file
sharers would no longer face prison.
The interoperability element makes it possible for competitors of, for example, Apple
Computer Inc.'s iPod, to build players capable of playing music bought from the iTunes
Music Store, or for others to create online music stores selling protected works that
will play on an iPod.
For now, Apple refuses to license its DRM system to others, leaving those wishing to
create interoperable systems no option but to reverse-engineer Apple's system by
breaking the DRM protection. The June 30 punished the breaking of DRM protection by six
months in prison and a ?30,000 fine, but exempted those doing so to develop
With so much at stake for open-source developers and others wanting to build
interoperable music and video players while staying on the right side of the law, the
socialists had asked the Council to define the term "interoperability," undefined in the
text. But the Council, rather than clarify matters, simply deleted the word, removing
the exemption and exposing open-source DRM developers to the full force of the law.