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Norway Sets iTunes Deadline

Last year, Norway’s consumer ombudsman agreed with complaints from the nation’s Consumer Council that restrictions placed on media purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store unfairly infringe on consumer rights; now, the country is threatening to file suit against Apple, Inc., if it doesn’t open up it iTunes store so media can be played on non-iPod devices by October 1, 2007.

The basis of the dispute is Apple’s “closed garden” digital media system represented by the iTunes Store and its popular iPod digital media players. Music or video purchased via the iTunes store can be played back via the iTunes software or on iPod players, but Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management software means the media cannot (easily) be transfered to rival devices or playback engines. Norway’s consumer ombudsman has now stated that Apple’s iTunes store violates Norwegian law by imposing unreasonable and unbalances restrictions on consumers’ use of purchased media: in other words, it’s illegal because it forces consumers to purchase an iPod if they want to use the digital media service.

If Apple fails to meet the deadline, Norway could impose fines on the company until it comes into compliance, or order the shutdown of the iTunes store in Norway. To comply, Apple could elect to sell music in rival DRM formats (most probably Windows Media DRM), sell unprotected music (a move which wouldn’t go over at all with Apple’s major-label partners), or license its FairPlay DRM technology to other companies so other players can handle protected music purchased from the iTunes store, or convert media between DRM formats.

Apple has not publicly commented on Norway’s lawsuit threat or deadline, but has said in the past it would work with countries to resolve disputes regarding its iTunes media distribution system. The tussle with Norway may just be a harbinger of troubles to come from other European nations, whose copyright laws don’t look favorably on closed, proprietary copyright management systems. In 2006, a similar dispute over proposed copyright legislation in France led Apple to describe demands that it open its iTunes music store as tantamount fo “state-sponsored piracy,” arguing that being required to open its store would deal a lethal blow to legitimate digital media sales and fuel piracy.

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