Government backs private copying in copyright reform plan

The Government has proposed allowing private copying of music and films and relaxed restrictions on copyright for schools and libraries in a major intellectual property consultation launched today.

The process will implement many of the recommendations made by Andrew Gowers in 2006 for reform of copyright law. Gowers proposed a relaxing of copyright restrictions in some areas in recognition of the manner in which digital media has changed the way people use copyrighted works.

The UK Intellectual Property Office is carrying out a two-stage consultation process overseen for the Government by Lord Treisman, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Intellectual Property.

The Government has said it wants to create a new exception to copyright law for private copying, or format shifting, such as the copying of a purchased CD to an MP3 player. "The exception would only apply to personal or private use," says the proposal. "The owner would not be permitted to sell, loan or give away the copy or share it more widely (for example in a file sharing system or on the internet). Multiple copying would not be allowed."

A private right to copy was one of the key recommendations of the Gowers review. Gowers, a former Financial Times editor, was asked by the Treasury to take a look at all IP law and produce a report, which he did in late 2006.

Gowers acknowledged a requirement of the EU's Copyright Directive which dictates that 'fair' compensation must be provided by member states that allow private copying in their national laws. His report suggested that if rights holders want additional revenues for format shifting, they could raise prices. To legitimise private copying from music sold previously, Gowers suggested that consumers could buy a licence. Other member states that allow private copying impose levies on copying technology and media to provide fair compensation.

The UK Government does not consider that compensation is required, though. It describes a format shifting exception as "a fair balance between the interests of consumers and those of right holders." Its paper points to the Copyright Directive's introductory wording, a recital that suggests that fair compensation can be gauged according to the possible harm to right holders. "In certain situations, where the prejudice to the right holder would be minimal, no obligation for payment may arise," says the Directive's introduction.

The consultation states: "The exception proposed in this paper is very narrow in scope and, therefore, we consider that there would be no obligation for payment under the Copyright Directive for a limited format shifting exception, as there is no significant harm to the right holder which would need to be compensated."

Other recommendations from Gowers' report are included in the Government's 96-page consultation paper.

The proposals expand the scope of a library or archive to make a copy of a work for preservation or replacement from written works to sound and film files as well.

Schools and universities can currently show copyrighted works to students in a room, and the consultation proposes extending that right over computer networks to allow for more efficient distance learning. A similar extension will apply to electronic whiteboards for written works.

Treisman said that the process is intended to help create a system which is fairer to users of works as well as rights holders.

"The copyright system is one intended to provide a balance," said Terisman. "It is important in changing technical circumstances that the balance between right holders and users be maintained."

"Identifying where the boundaries should lie is critical in ensuring that our copyright system remains fit for today’s world. A system of strong rights, accompanied by limited exceptions, will provide a framework that is valued by and protects right holders and is both understood and respected by users," he said.

The consultation closes on 8th April. The Government will then produce a draft change to the law, which will be the subject of its own consultation process.