EMI Music France and music retailer FNAC have been placed under investigation by a magistrate at a court in Nanterre, near Paris.

PARIS -- Controversial copy-protection technology is once again causing legal trouble for companies in France.

EMI Music France and music retailer FNAC have been placed under investigation by a magistrate at a court in Nanterre, near Paris.

The Tribunal de Grande Instance, a civil court, accuses the companies of "deception over the material qualities of a product." This contravenes France's competition law and is punishable by up to two years in prison and/or a fine of 37,500 euros ($45,300).

The court made its decision July 31 but did not publicize it until Aug. 25. Under the French legal system, a court-ordered investigation does not predetermine the outcome of a case.

The matter was brought to the Nanterre tribunal at the end of 2003 by an anti-fraud unit from the Hauts-de-Seine district. Consumer association UFC-Que Choisir, which is a plaintiff in the case, alerted the competition department to the situation.

UFC-QC has long insisted that EMI's copy-protection technology deceives consumers by making CDs unreadable for certain players, such as car stereos. The association also claims that copy-control devices prevent consumers from making copies of recordings, a right allowed under copyright law.

UFC-QC has accused FNAC of insufficiently informing consumers of these problems.

Isabelle Wekstein, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property issues, downplays the importance of the investigation. She says the lawsuit is "somewhat misplaced," considering that this is "just a technical problem, not a legal one."

"The fact that the judge has ordered an investigation does not mean that anyone is guilty or even accused," Wekstein says. "It just means that he has accepted UFC-Que Choisir's arguments. But the investigation could easily result in a 'non-lieu' [closure of the case without proceedings] in eight months' time. It has happened before."

EMI and FNAC say they have made efforts to resolve copy-protection problems.

EMI said in a statement that the case "concerns CDs on sale between October 2002 and August 2003, which were equipped with a copy-control system which EMI France has not used for a year."

FNAC insists that it has "always been on the consumer's side." The chain promises to refund "even unwrapped unreadable products, considering such problems are not predictable."

Sources at EMI say the company will continue to issue copy-protected CDs in various territories.

The Nanterre court is not new to such cases. In September 2003, it threw out UFC-Que Choisir's complaint on behalf of a consumer who couldn't listen to a CD by Virgin act Alain Souchon on her car stereo. The label was nevertheless ordered to reimburse the consumer. UFC-Que Choisir was ordered to pay EMI and co-defendant Auchan, the retailer that sold the CD, 2,000 euros ($2,170) each to cover court costs.