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December 15, 2011

Government’s copyright proposals to boost tech start-ups

The Government has announced its proposals to bring the UK’s copyright laws into line with the modern world.

By Allan Swann

The Government is beginning its consultation on changes to the Copyright Act with an eye to removing barriers to technological innovation, especially for start-ups who have previously been hampered by a lack of any ‘fair use’ principles in the UK’s current laws.

Minister for Intellectual Property, Baroness Wilcox, wants to make sure the copyright system encourages the creation and use of music, books, video and other copyright material, while continuing to tackle copyright infringement, particularly online.

"The Government is focused on boosting growth and some freeing up of existing copyright legislation can deliver real value to the UK economy without risking our excellent creative industries. We are encouraging businesses to come forward with thoughts and evidence on our proposals to help us achieve this," she said.

The main focus of its proposals surround the creation of an exception for private copying, which includes format shifting. This includes copying CDs to MP3s for personal use – something currently illegal under UK law. This would bring it more into line with EU and US laws.

A recent Consumer Focus survey found only 15% of consumers knew that copying a CD that they had bought onto their MP3 player was illegal, and only 9% thought it should be. A University of Hertfordshire survey for UK Music found that being able to copy music between devices is important to 87% of 14 to 24 year-olds.

As the UK does not have a fair use clause in its laws as the US does, start ups developing technology such as iPods have seen their growth hampered, as happened with UK company Brennan. It faced difficulties with its own private copying device – the Brennan JB7 Hi Fi music player. Brennan was ordered by the Advertising Standards Authority to include a warning in its advertisements that use of its device involved copyright infringement.

This will also look at video format shifting, such as moving movies from DVDs to iPads. It will also introduce an exception for parody and pastiche, to give comedians and remix artists creative freedom without needing to seek permission from the copyright holder.

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Another area of potential innovation, and one that is booming in the industry, is private cloud services. In the other countries with private copying exceptions, such services can be provided freely. However, providers of similar services in the UK face legal risks and copyright licence fees. Also, if Cloud services are licensed, consumers may have to pay copyright owners twice for the same right to copy content – once at the point of sale, and again via a subscription to private cloud storage. This throws another operating cost at UK businesses that international competitors don’t have to deal with.

The Government has already rejected the option of a private copying levy, to be charged on devices that facilitate copying (i.e. CD burners and Blank DVDs), and has rejected any option of an unrestricted private copying, but may look at family sharing – such as is seen in Spain’s copyright law.

In the modern Internet world content providers are eager to protect their aging business models, frequently pursuing aggressive legal means. As with the launch of the VCR and the iPod, two of the defining technologies of the last 30 years, these bodies have threatened and used politics to attempt to shut these technologies down.

The US is currently engaged in a high stakes legal war over its highly controversial SOPA bill (Stop Online Piracy Act), which is attempting to cut off funding and block access to piracy websites. Expect these lobby groups to be hard at work here too before the consultation period ends on March 21.

The Government’s Copyright Proposals
* Creating an exception to allow limited acts of private copying – for example making it legal to copy a CD to an MP3 player. This move will bring copyright law into line with modern technology and the reasonable expectations of consumers.

* Widening the exception for non-commercial research to allow data mining, enabling researchers to achieve new medical and scientific advances from existing research. Currently researchers cannot use some new computer techniques to read data from journal articles which they have already paid to access without specific permission from the copyright owners of each article.

* Introducing an exception for parody and pastiche, to give comedians and other people the creative freedom to parody someone else’s work without seeking permission from the copyright holder.

* Establishing licensing and clearance procedures for ‘orphan works’ (material with unknown copyright owners). This would open up a range of works that are currently locked away in libraries and museums and unavailable for consumer or research purposes.

* Introducing provision for voluntary extended collective licensing schemes, which would make it simpler to get permission to use copyrighted works and help ensure rights owners are paid. These schemes would allow authorised collecting societies to license on behalf of all rights holders in a sector (except for those who choose to opt out).

* Modernising other exceptions to copyright including those for education, quotation, and people with disabilities.

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