As the Digital Economy Bill makes its way through Parliament, one of the most controversial yet little-known provisions of copyright law is once again finding itself under scrutiny. The Government-Funded watchdog Consumer Focus has called for a change in the law which currently makes it illegal for iPod users to download their own CDs onto the MP3 player – after a survey of 2000 adults, it became clear that 17 per cent did not realise that doing so was against the law. Consumer Focus claimed that “the credibility of UK copyright law has fallen through the floor – millions of consumers are regularly copying CDs or DVDs and are unaware that they are breaching copyright law.”
This isn’t the first time that Consumer Focus have raised this issue. Recently, they carried out a survey of Intellectual Property Laws in 16 countries, including the USA, Australia and China, and found that UK copyright laws are the most out of date and that they “needlessly criminalize millions of people” as a result.
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 without the need for registration, and the copyright in a song or entire album belongs to either the Band or their label, giving 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.
But 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, to deal with “format shifting”, but that change was due to be ratified by the start of last 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.
Changing the law to recognise “format shifting” from CD to MP3 would do a lot to clarify the situation and make consumers aware of exactly what is and isn’t permitted or can be copied. The real problem here, and one of the reasons which the law hasn’t yet been changed, 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. This would still be illegal, even if copying your own CDs onto an iPod wasn’t.
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, and no-one has ever actually been prosecuted for doing so. Recognising Format Shifting may well precipitate another shift – in public opinion towards respecting copyright law.