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Carbonaceous computers at Christmas


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 12/19/05


If things go as some people in the French government have proposed, Parisian parents may not be able to buy a computer for their kids next Christmas. I bet you can guess, without much difficulty, what narrow-minded topic would cause such a possibility.


Making laws in Europe is even more fun than in the United States - they have a whole additional layer of sausage-making for topics that are considered important enough to have some degree of consistency across the European Union. First the European Commission comes up with a directive that lays out the objectives of a set of laws, then individual governments create their own laws to meet these objectives.


The European Commission has been working in the area of copyright protection for a while and has produced a series of directives and other documents, including a directive focused on the enforcement of copyrights .


In the year and a half since the directive was adopted, individual European governments have been working on passing their own laws, and now it is France's turn. The French National Assembly is due to start debate just before Christmas on a number of proposals and as many as 100 amendments. The International Herald Tribune story on the situation  mentions three of the proposals that have caused particular concern.


One proposal is seen in the open source community as a serious threat to open source operating systems, because it would require that computer software implement digital rights management (DRM). It is not clear how this could be done if users could recode and reload the operating system as they can do with open source systems such as Linux.


Another proposal that has caused considerable angst among software vendors would require them to share their DRM source code with other vendors. Sharing proprietary source code is not something that most vendors like to do, even though such sharing would likely result in better software.


A third proposal could stop companies from selling computer software in France. Since computers are not that useful without software, this would basically put an end to computers being available in France, which might be good for the relative competitive position of the rest of the world but would not do much for the future economic health of France. This proposal would make software vendors liable for damages resulting from the use of their software for illegal copying of copyrighted materials, even if the software had been hacked and modified.


I cannot imagine any software vendor being willing to sell their software in a country with an open-ended liability like this. But the future of the French economy may not yet be lost. Even the main sponsor of the legislation said he expects that it will be changed to actually balance copyright and other interests. It sure is neat the way that the copyright folk propose totally absurd, one-sided ideas just so the draconian final result looks good by comparison.


I expect that the final bill will be a bit less one-sided. But I also expect that people in France, other than the copyright folk, will be getting coal in their Christmas stocking from their Parliament - though maybe not computers shaped from coal, which would be the only ones the current proposals would allow.


Disclaimer: While I expect that Harvard, the university, used coal for heating at some point, I am sure that Harvard, the ship, did when it was built . But neither used coal to construct computers, so the above prediction is mine - happy holidays, anyway.


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