Do UK Copyright Laws make Criminals out of iPod owners?

A survey by Consumer Focus of Intellectual Property Laws in 16 countries, including the USA, Australia and China, has found that UK copyright laws are the most out of date and claims that they “needlessly criminalize millions of people” as a result.

Ed Mayo, the chief executive of Consumer Focus, said: “UK copyright law is the oldest but also the most out of date. It’s time our copyright law caught up with the real world. “The current system puts unrealistic limits on our listening and viewing habits and is rapidly losing credibility among consumers. A broad ‘Fair Use’ exception would bring us in line with consumer expectations, technology and the rest of the world.”

The survey also found that more than half of British consumers thought burning a CD they had bought to their PC or iPod was legal, though it is in fact a copyright infringement.

Copyright is hugely important for the music industry as it is the main protection for an artist’s work and the main way in which record companies make money. Copyright protects music as soon as it is recorded, and the copyright in a song or entire album belongs to either the Band or their label, and it gives them the right to control if and when their music is copied and made available to the public to allow them to charge fees for doing so, which, so the theory goes, would encourage other artists to carry on making new music.

However, UK copyright law has not been able to keep up with the pace of technology. In the 80s, many LPs carried a piracy warning that “Home Taping Is Killing Music” as cassette recorders allowed copies of albums to be handed out without any control by the Music Industry under the fear that LP sales would fall if people stopped buying LPs that their friends copied for them, which they did. We are in an even worse situation now as the Music Industry is terrified of the impact that illegal downloading is having upon CD sales.

The Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988 states that it is an infringement of the Artist or Label’s copyright if any third party copies a “work” or issues a copy of a work to the public, meaning that anyone who copies a song or an album could not only be sued but could also be prosecuted. This was fine when all we had to worry about were cassettes, but the Act never saw MP3s or the iPod coming, which have seen consumers transfer much of their CD collection onto an MP3 player so that they can carry it around with them.

The public at large thinks that this is perfectly legal, but what many don’t appreciate is that by burning a CD onto your PC or iPod, you are actually copying it, which is illegal even if only you listen to it! The Government did flag this up as an issue as part of the Gowers Report on Intellectual Property a few years ago and has already recognized the need for a change in the law, but that change was due to be ratified by the start of this year. Downloading from iTunes is legal as you’re paying for the copy of the song or album which you download, but when you pay for a CD what you’re actually permitted to do is listen to it in your own home and that’s about it.

In my opinion, changing the law would do an awful lot to clarify the situation and make consumers aware of exactly what is and isn’t permitted. The real problem lies with large-scale downloaders who either download thousands of songs without paying for them or who copy and sell pirate versions of major releases.  The US has a “fair use” exception to Copyright Law where any act which doesn’t actually lead to the Copyright Owner suffering economic loss is generally permitted, and maybe it’s time that the UK looked at something similar sooner rather than later. After all, I’m sure that neither the record companies or the government will want to follow the black letter of the law and take action against an entire generation who is growing up with an iPod rather than a CD player.

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