Can new UK copyright law reforms work in the US?

August 5, 2011


Earlier this week, the British government announced plans to change its copyright laws.

Namely, that the enforcement of certain provisions of last year’s Digital Economy Act on blocking copyright infringing file-sharing websites is “unworkable,” and the plan should be dropped.

This action is one of many expected as part of the government’s response to the “Hargreaves report,” a review of British copyright laws by Ian Hargreaves, Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University.

The report recommended several other changes to loosen the U.K.’s restrictive copyright laws, which are, for the most part, stricter than even U.S. laws; the changes are estimated to generate billions for the British economy.

Among the recommendations are legalizing “space-shifting,” enabling licensing of “orphan works,” and establishing a “Digital Copyright Exchange.”

Could these recommendations also benefit the U.S. economy?

The answer is probably “yes,” since copyright laws tend to be relatively uniform internationally.

“Orphan works” refer to copyrighted works for which the owner cannot be located, and thus for which a license cannot be acquired.

This is a problem both in Britain and the U.S., since orphan works are essentially off-limits for use.

Opening them up would result in more creative works, stimulating the economy.

A “Digital Copyright Exchange” is pretty much what it sounds like: a digital exchange where licenses to copyrighted materials may be bought and sold.

This would make legal access to copyrighted materials easier, saving time and money.

“Space-shifting” (sometimes called “format-shifting”) is the copying of media from CDs or DVDs to a digital format; the practice is more commonly referred to as “ripping.”

The illegality of the practice in the U.K. is surprising to many, and, according to the report, it doesn’t make sense.

To the shock of many Americans, the practice is also illegal in the U.S. (at least in regards to DVDs).

While the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the primary legislation on copyrights in effect today) allows the digital backup of legally purchased movies and music, it doesn’t allow circumvention of copy-protection measures.

Even though music CDs do not and cannot contain copy-protection measures (I know it’s more complicated than that, but it’s not worth getting into here), every commercial DVD sold in the U.S. does.

Therefore, it is illegal to transfer video from a DVD onto your computer (which may be completely out of line with many consumers’ expectations).*

With the new exemptions to the DMCA’s anti-circumvention clause published by the U.S. Copyright Office in July 2010, though, the practice is no longer always illegal.

While most probably remember the revisions simply for legalizing the jailbreaking of Apple’s iPhone, there were several other significant exemptions.

One was allowing circumvention of DVD protections for limited uses (see the rules for specifics).

Although this doesn’t legalize DVD circumvention to put movies on your iPod, it is the first time any such circumvention has been legalized.**

These new rules came as a big surprise to just about everyone, mainly because they loosened copyright laws so significantly.

In fact, those exemptions may indicate that the U.S. had already recognized the need for updating its copyright laws a year before the U.K. did.

Are those exemptions actually a sign of things to come?

We can only wait and see.

Hopefully, though, the U.S. continues its reforms, because copyright law can become obsolete as quickly as technology.

*Realistically, though, there’s very little likelihood of ever facing prosecution from doing it, since there are many widely available programs that do it, and there’s no practical way of monitoring this kind of activity.

**There may be some confusion as to the effect MGE UPS Systems v. GE Consumer and Industrial had on DVD circumvention for personal use. There originally was a ruling in July 2010 that seemed to legalize the practice.  That ruling was later withdrawn.  The same result was reached in the second ruling issued in September 2010, but the second ruling lacked the holding.  Thus, the practice is still mostly illegal in the U.S.