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French open-source developers could face prison

Copyright law under attack

French Deputy Frédéric Dutoit accused the French government of "signing the death warrant for open-source software" in France, as the debate in the National Assembly over a new copyright bill lurched towards a conclusion.

At issue was an amendment to the bill that tacked on a three-year prison sentence and a fine of €300,000 (about £210,000) for publishing, distributing or inciting people to use software "manifestly intended to make protected works available to unauthorised persons". The protected works referred to include DVDs and some digital music files, the use of which is restricted by DRM (digital rights management) systems.

Supporters of open-source software – including a number of deputies participating in the debate – fear that the bill would make it illegal to develop something as innocent as a DVD player application for the Linux operating system, since an open-source implementation of the algorithm required to decrypt and play a DVD would necessarily also contain code useful to someone wishing to make copies of it.

If they risk imprisonment or financial ruin working on such projects in France, then "French companies, engineers and researchers will become expatriates and develop the software beyond our borders," another deputy, Patrick Bloche, warned during the debate.

The developers of the open-source media player project VideoLan, begun by students at the Ecole Centrale Paris engineering school, fear their software will become illegal in France if the bill becomes law. "VideoLAN is directly impacted, most notably for its DVD reading capability," their project's web page warned yesterday.

There are still some hurdles to cross before the bill, 'Authors' rights and related rights in an information society' – abbreviated to DADVSI in French – becomes law. After debating and amending the bill for one more session, the Assembly will vote on the amended text on Tuesday.

If the Assembly approves the bill on Tuesday then the French Senate will get its turn. However, neither the Assembly nor the Senate will be allowed their usual second reading of the text, as the government is rushing the bill through using a special emergency procedure.

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