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A short post about copyright, format shifting, and the law being an ass....

Copyright is probably the one IP right that impacts on most people's lives the most directly. Everyone watches TV in some form or another, and everyone listens to music, whether via direct broadcast, streaming service, or via digital downloads. Pretty much all commercially generated content - movies, TV programs, music - is copyright material that is owned by someone. Unlike other IP rights, copyright has a long duration: generally the lifespan of the original creator, plus a good few decades (the exact duration is country-dependent, but they're all pretty much the same).

To put this in context, "Keep the home fires burning" was a popular world war one song written and recorded in 1915. The writer - Ivor Novello - died in 1951, so his song won't be out of copyright until 2021 (copyright being 'life-of-author-plus-70-years' in the UK). That's over 100 years after this was first a hit.

It's hardly news to note that rights owners, and the law, have struggled to keep up in the digital age, where any form of digital content can be copied multiple times and sent around the world in the blink of an eye, regardless of national boundaries and the laws that apply within them. I don't intend to go into a drawn-out discussion of the overall moral rights and wrongs of copyright, piracy and so on, but I do want to briefly discuss one aspect that most people probably aren't aware of.

Up until very recently, if you legally bought a film, album, TV box set, or similar, it was illegal to make a copy of this item, even if that was just for the purposes of making a back-up that you would hopefully never have to use. Making a copy of an album for your 'phone, with the main copy on your home entertainment system? Illegal. Making a copy of an album to play in the car? Illegal. Ripping an old DVD box set onto your hard drive? Illegal.

Obviously, this was was ignored by almost everyone, and was so daft that it didn't help the overall case of the pro-copyright lobby. So, copyright law was amended last year to enable a 'private copying exception'. As long as the copy was for private use: as a back-up, for use on a different personal device, or similar, then the copying wasn't illegal (s28B of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 for those who want chapter and verse)

This was a very sensible and long-overdue amendment within a legal framework and system that has often struggled with the pace of technical development. So, naturally, it didn't last all that long.

This sort of copying is now illegal again, and for once it appears that it isn't the fault of shadowy corporate lobbyists behind the scenes. A recent judgement ([2015] EWHC 1723 in the UK High Court) has invalidated the regulations intended to put s28B into effect. The specifics of this case are discussed in detail elsewhere online, and I don't intend to bore people with them because it's not all that interesting a case, but basically, it's all the fault of a legal technicality, rather than any sort of high-stakes, high-interest courtroom drama.

It's not clear how this will impact on the private use exception, but it currently appears that if you are making copies for your own use, then you are, again, a criminal.

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