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French Lower House Passes P2P Legalization Bill

French lawmakers approved an online copyright bill Tuesday that would require Apple to break open the exclusive format behind its market-leading iTunes music store and iPod players.

The draft law — which also introduces new penalties for music pirates — would force Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL), Sony Corp. (SNE) and others to share proprietary copy-protection technologies so that rivals can offer compatible services and players.

Lawmakers in the National Assembly, France's lower house, approved the bill 296-193. The legislation now has to be debated and voted by the Senate — a process expected to begin in May.

Apple has so far refused to comment on the bill or on analysts' suggestions that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company might choose to withdraw from the French online music market rather than share the proprietary technology at the heart of its business model.

Representatives for Apple France did not return calls Tuesday.

Under the bill, companies would be required to reveal the secrets of hitherto-exclusive copy-protection technologies such as Apple's FairPlay format and the ATRAC3 code used by Sony's Connect store and Walkman players.

That could permit consumers for the first time to download music directly to their iPods from stores other than iTunes, or to rival music players from iTunes France.

The new legislation would also introduce penalties ranging from €38 to €150 ($50 to $180) for those caught pirating music or movies at home and €3,750 ($4,600) for hackers who disable copy-protection systems.

Those caught distributing software for online piracy face fines of up to €300,000 ($365,000) and jail terms.