Three months after having begun selling tracks without digital rights management protection, leading online French retailers FnacMusic and VirginMega have taken the next step. The online stores this week released a significant catalog available in the MP3 format.

On Monday (Jan. 15), VirginMega began selling 200,000 tracks without DRM, followed by Fnac, which on Wednesday (Jan. 17) rolled out 150,000 DRM-free titles.

According to sources, the DRM-free works from both retailers have a lot in common and only comprises content from independent labels. Fnac has revealed that Pias, V2 Music and Beggars Group are involved in their offering.

Fnac and Virginmega say they are still negotiating with other labels to offer DRM-free content online.

In a statement, Franck Leprou, managing director of Fnac.com, which operates FnacMusic, said: "Today, we note that DRMs are really slowing the growth of digital music. Those protections are often not compatible with the players available in the market and don't fulfill the need of consumers who in the end get diverted from the legal download market."

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

The MP3 initiative has been launched in the same week that French trade body SNEP unveiled gloomy figures for the 2006 recording market.

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

A new independent body, which is supposed to regulate the applications of DRM and overseeing interoperability, has not been set up yet, with some reports suggesting it will be created in February.