Your Digital Bill of Rights

Look back 15 years, into a world before Kindle, iTunes and iPlayer. It’s a world of expense and inconvenience, where carrying your whole music collection in your pocket is unthinkable, where renting a film means a trip into town, where buying Radiohead’s latest album costs you £12.99.

Yet this world did have one big advantage: you knew where you stood. Books and videos could be lent or sold. Radiohead’s album could be played in the car, at home or on your portable CD player, or sold at a second-hand shop.

With the shift to digital, it’s difficult to know exactly what your rights are. The laws that govern such matters date back to the 18th century.

For users, stricter controls have reduced their freedom to access copyright works

Attempts to create a common policy across Europe have resulted in the Copyright in the Information Society Directive 2001, a document that Joe McNamee of the European Digital Rights organisation calls “so incoherent that I have always wondered if it’s actually legal”.

The 2006 Gowers Review, which analysed UK legislation for the digital age, came to nothing. Its successor, this year’s Hargreaves Report, is mired in dispute. The issue is control.

As Professor Ian Walden of the Centre for Commercial Law Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, says: “As technological developments have threatened rights-holders and the legacy business models they have operated under, government has tended to respond to calls for stricter laws to protect the creative industries. For users, stricter controls have reduced their freedom to access copyright works.”

So, what rights do we have? We’ve worked through the most common questions, talked to the experts, and tried to find definitive answers. We couldn’t clear up every ambiguity, but until new legislation does, we present your Digital Bill of Rights.

Can I copy my CDs across to my PC, phone or iPod?

Officially, no. Unofficially, yes.

Amazingly, copying copyrighted content from one media to another – or “format shifting” as it’s known – is against the law. “Format shifting is currently technically illegal under UK law, specifically the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988,” says Professor Walden, “unless permitted under the terms of the licence of use.”

If the licence to use a CD explicitly states that it can be copied then it’s legal, but with most CDs there is no such allowance. In this case, as a spokesman for the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) informed us, “any copying or transcoding would usually constitute an infringement”.

Nevertheless, it’s an infringement you’re unlikely to suffer for. “In reality, people aren’t pursued for such practices as long as they’re carried out for personal rather than commercial purposes,” says Professor Walden.

Jim Killock, chief executive of digital rights campaigners, the Open Rights Group (ORG) concurs, noting that “the music industry has stated that ‘format shifting’ is something they would not prosecute anyone for.”

However, this is an ongoing battleground, particularly with regard to the Hargreaves Report, which recommends that the law be amended to permit format shifting, in line with other European countries. Killock notes that the music industry will “vigorously contest any legalisation of format shifting without levies being imposed”. If so, it’s going to meet with resistance.

“Naturally,” Killock explains, “the UK Government doesn’t wish to introduce an ‘iPod tax’ in order to smooth the way for individuals to copy music they’ve already bought.”

In the meantime, the advertising watchdog continues to clamp down on companies advertising CD-ripping hardware.

Can I sell my purchased digital music, films and ebooks?

No. “Unless explicitly prohibited by the contract of sale or terms of, for example, an ebook service, it’s usually permissable to sell or loan copyrighted material that you have purchased to other people,” says an IPO spokesman.

Digital Rights

The problem is most licences do prohibit resale. As Jim Killock points out: “Unlike software, the licence will generally state that it can’t be transferred.”

The other problem arises from the meaning of copyright. “When you purchased a physical version, for example a DVD of a film or a CD of music,” says Professor Walden, “you were permitted to lend or resell that work to others because it didn’t involve the making of further copies.”

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