Dutch agency joins Euro iTunes rebellion


AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- The Dutch consumer protection agency said Thursday it has joined a drive by consumer rights groups in Germany, France, and the Nordic countries to force Apple Inc. to change the rules it imposes on customers of its online music store.

Consumentenbond spokesman Ewald van Kouwen said his group had filed a formal complaint with the Dutch antitrust watchdog NMa asking it to investigate what he called "illegal practices" by Apple's iTunes Store.

"What we want from Apple is that they remove the limitations that prevent you from playing a song you download from iTunes on any player other than an iPod," he said.

"When you buy a music CD it doesn't play only on players made by Panasonic. People who download a song from iTunes shouldn't be bound to an iPod for the rest of their lives."

Currently, songs bought on iTunes can be played only on iPods, and an iPod can't play downloads from other stores with similar premium content from major artists -- like Napster Inc.'s service or Sony Corp.'s Connect.

On Monday, a spokesman told The Associated Press that Apple is "aware of the concerns we've heard from several agencies in Europe."

"Apple hopes that European governments will encourage a competitive environment that lets innovation thrive," Tom Neumayr said then. The company declined further comment Thursday.

Van Kouwen said his group was "inspired" by Norway's consumer ombudsman, who on Monday gave the company a Sept. 30 deadline to change its rules or face legal action.

Simmering European discontent with Apple's rules first boiled over in June 2006, when consumer agencies in Norway, Denmark and Sweden claimed that Apple's practices violated contract and copyright laws.

French consumer lobby UFC-Que Choisir and its German counterpart Ferbraucherzentralen joined the effort late last year, along with Finland's Kuluttajavirasto.

In August, France passed a law that giving regulators power to force Apple to license its software or hardware to rivals so they can make compatible music players and stores.

Early drafts of the law would have ordered the outright removal of DRM or "digital rights management" software -- which prevents song files from playing on other players. Apple, which only reached agreement with major record labels to license their music by agreeing to add DRM software, complained the law was tantamount to "state-sponsored piracy."

But in its final form it has not led to any significant change in Apple's practices in France.

Van Kouwen said it will take months for the NMa watchdog to investigate the complaint against Apple, but he was confident the agency would find Apple is abusing a "dominant position" in the music download market.

In the meanwhile the Consumentenbond is advising Dutch consumers not to buy iPods or use iTunes, but instead buy generic mp3 players and use services like eMusic, owned by JDS Capital Management Inc., which doesn't add DRM software to its songs.

"They're growing like crazy, and have much lower prices than iTunes," he said.

He conceded that eMusic's offerings don't contain many of the most popular international artists.

Van Kouwen said the Consumentenbond would also oppose Microsoft Corp.'s use of DRM software on music for its new Zune player "or Sony or any company that does so."