French lawmakers on Tuesday approved a controversial law that threatens to throw wide open Apple Computer’s digital music business model. The vote was immediately condemned by parts of the IT industry.

Under the law, Apple’s iTunes online music store will be forced to remove software barriers that currently prevent consumers from playing downloaded tracks on any digital device other than the company’s own iPod player.

Apple responded by saying that the proposed law was “state-sponsored piracy”.

“If this happens, legal music sales will plummet just when legitimate alternatives to piracy are winning over customers,” the company added.

The copyright legislation, which will now go to the French upper house, also imposes the concept of “interoperability” on Apple’s rivals. Some of them, including Virgin Digital in the UK, welcomed it as a chance to attack the market leader.

But few IT companies, apart from the music retailers, backed the French move.

Francisco Mingorance, European director of policy at the Business Software Alliance, a trade body whose members include Apple, Microsoft and Dell, said: “It deprives authors and software publishers of the rights they have enjoyed until now.”

Mr Mingorance warned that a weakened iTunes would reopen the door to pirate music sites, which have been hurt by the success of Apple’s integrated iTunes and iPod, as well as by lawsuits against illegal downloaders.

“Legitimate business models validated by national countries are in danger. These legitimate business models are the only alternative to online piracy,” he said.

But the French government sought to position the law as a victory won by France for the consumer that would be copied elsewhere. Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, French culture minister, said the law allowed “the dawn of an equitable internet.”

Last week he said France was a “pioneer” in opening up digital music, offering “immense progress” to consumers. It was “obvious” that other countries would follow, he added.

Apple, which has recently launched a big French marketing campaign for the iPod, may close down its French iTunes site in response, according to industry analysts.

Alexander Ross, a media law partner at Wiggin, whose clients include rivals to Apple’s iTunes, said the decision was a positive one for purchasers of online music who would be able to listen to any downloads on any device.

“The principle of interoperability is a good one to open up the market.” He also argued it could be good news for Apple: “By introducing interoperability they could win business.”

iTunes has 40 per cent of the French digital music download market ahead of Virgin-Mega, which has 30 per cent, and Fnac, which has 20 per cent.

Even with this leading position, it does not enjoy the same dominance in France as elsewhere.

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