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French lawmakers vote to soften copyright proposal in iTunes battle

PARIS -- Leading French lawmakers voted yesterday to water down a draft copyright law that could force Apple Computer Inc. to make its iPod music player and iTunes online store compatible with rivals' offerings.

But the changes did not appear to go far enough to satisfy Apple, which dropped the strongest hint yet that it might withdraw from the French download market rather than comply.

Currently, music bought on Apple iTunes can be played only on iPods, and an iPod can't play songs bought in rival stores, such as Sony Corp.'s Connect. Critics have called the restrictions anticompetitive and anticonsumer, but the lock-in is a key part of the companies' business models.

The National Assembly, France's lower house, voted in March to force companies like Apple and Sony to hand over exclusive copy-protection technologies to any rival that wants to offer compatible music players and online stores.

While the compromise adopted yesterday still asserts that companies should share the technical data essential to such ``interoperability," it tones down many of the tougher measures backed by the lower house.

It also maintains a loophole introduced last month by senators, which could allow Apple and others to dodge data-sharing demands by striking new deals with record labels and artists.

Apple, which had condemned the lower house proposals as ``state-sponsored piracy," nevertheless hinted the new draft law could affect its presence in France. ``We are awaiting the final result of France's legislative process, and hope they let the extremely competitive marketplace driven by customer choice," the company said. A spokeswoman said Apple had ``nothing further to add." Apple's withdrawal could leave hundreds of thousands of French iPod users unable to purchase music from iTunes.

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