France is pushing through a law that would force Apple Computer to open its iTunes online music store and enable consumers to download songs onto devices other than the computer maker's popular iPod p

France is pushing through a law that would force Apple Computer to open its iTunes online music store and enable consumers to download songs onto devices other than the computer maker's popular iPod player.

Under a draft law expected to be voted on in parliament on Thursday (March 16), consumers would be able to legally use software that converts digital content into any format.

It would no longer be illegal to crack digital rights management--the codes that protect music, films and other content--if it is to enable the conversion from one format to another, said Christian Vanneste, Rapporteur, a senior parliamentarian who helps guide law in France.

"It will force some proprietary systems to be opened up...You have to be able to download content and play it on any device," Vanneste told Reuters in a telephone interview Monday.

Music downloaded from Apple's iTunes online music store currently can be played only on iPods.

The law, if enacted, could prompt Apple to shut its iTunes store in France, some industry observers say, to keep from making songs vulnerable to conversion outside France, too.

"The person who will have converted iTunes songs will be able to make it available elsewhere," Marc Guez, head of the French Collecting Society for Music Producers rights (SCPP), told Reuters.

Apple officials in France and Britain did not return calls seeking comment.

The law would also mean that other online French music retailers such as Fnac, part of PPR, would have to make iTunes songs available on their Web sites.

Vanneste said the draft law aimed to fight piracy, encourage the development of the online digital music market in France and benefit legal online music retailers.

Record sales tumbled 8% in France last year while digital music sales rose fivefold.

Digital sales comprised 5.3%, or €259 million ($309 million), of total 2005 revenue for Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, which is owned by the French group Vivendi.

Under the latest version of the proposed law, people who download material illegally would be subject to a fine of €38 ($45), and those sharing illegally downloaded material with others would be subject to a fine of €150 ($179).

People who make and sell software for illegal file-sharing and content downloading would remain subject to a maximum fine of €300,000 ($359,000) and prison sentences of up to three years.

Police agents can monitor music exchange Web sites and trace back the e-mail address of beneficiaries by asking the Internet service provider for it through a court order.

The proposed law would also secure private copies of legally downloaded material, but the number of private copies could be limited -- that's yet to be determined. DVDs are expected to be excluded from the law, Vanneste said.

The new legislation is triggered by France's need to transpose the European directive on copyrights into its own body of law, which it failed to do by the December 2002 deadline.

Vanneste said France and Spain were the only two EU countries that had yet to make the move.

Guez, from the rights group, said the law would probably not come into force until June. It would still need approval by the Senate, the upper house.

An earlier amendment that would have legalized the use of peer-to-peer networks to download songs and films for a flat monthly fee of several euros has been shelved, Vanneste said.

That proposal was fiercely opposed by music artists, film production houses and record companies.

Some legalized versions of peer-to-peer networks are starting to crop up, however, including one expected to be launched in Germany by Warner Bros, part of Time Warner.

-- Reuters