Two groups selling unprotected tracks for first time.

Leading online retailers in France are for the first time selling songs without digital rights management (DRM) protection.

Yesterday (Oct. 19), FnacMusic (Fnac, PPR group) released French singer Aaron's "U-Turn (Lili)" and "Mister K", licensed through French aggregator Believe. And today, VirginMega (Virgin Stores, Lagardère group) started selling Henry Padovani's "Welcome Home" (featuring Sting & Stewart Copeland), licensed via French aggregator Wild Palms Music.

The three songs are sold at the usual price of €0.99 ($1.24) without DRM and an expiry time limit.

"There is nothing revolutionary in this, that's pure common sense," says Virgin Mega managing director Julien Ulrich. "We want end-users to be able to play the songs they buy on any device (including iPods). We want to create the debate and to show that we believe in this model."

In a new copyright law approved this summer, the French government tried to put an end to the interoperability debate by approving the use of DRM but making interoperability compulsory.

However, the new independent body required to regulate the applications of DRM and overseeing interoperability has not been set up yet.

"I am very pessimistic about the chances of reaching interoperability, or at least compatibility among different DRM systems," Ulrich says. "If we cannot reach our goal through this process, then we will try another."

Franck Leprou, manging director of Fnac.com (which operates FnacMusic) agrees: "Considering the latest developments from major players such as Microsoft or RealNetworks, which are not compatible with compulsory interoperability [as required by the new French law], only the paying online user gets penalized (financially)."

Fnac and VirginMega say they are in ongoing talks with record companies and that they will sell more tracks without DRM shortly. "Distributors have always had a leading role in the evolution of the market," Leprou says.

In France, iTunes is leading the download-music market with a reported 40% share, but faces tough competition from VirginMega and FnacMusic.