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UK dons dunce hat on copyright law

F-grade on user protection - gov stalls reform

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Copyright reform in the UK has 'stalled' as the Government has caved in to the 'vested interests' of the content industry, the head of a digital rights activist group has said. The view comes as the UK 'abjectly fails' a test of its copyright laws.

The international umbrella body for consumer rights organisations, Consumers International, has surveyed the copyright laws of 16 countries and has concluded that the UK's is the worst for protecting users' rights.

The UK was the only country to be given an overall 'F' score by the report. All the other countries were rated between A and D. "'A' to 'D' rates how well the country in question observes consumers' interests in its national copyright law and enforcement practices. 'F' is assigned if the country abjectly fails to observe those interests," said the report.

Consumers International is funded in part by the UK Government and Government-established consumer protection body Consumer Focus is a member.

"UK copyright law is the oldest but also the most out of date. It’s time our copyright law caught up with the real world," said Ed Mayo, chief executive of Consumer Focus. "The current system puts unrealistic limits on our listening and viewing habits and is rapidly losing credibility among consumers. A broad ‘fair use’ exception would bring us in line with consumer expectations, technology and the rest of the world."

Jim Killock, the executive director of digital rights activist body the Open Rights Group (ORG), said that the Government did have a plan for copyright reform in the aftermath of former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers' Treasury-commissioned review of intellectual property in 2006, but that it seemed to have given up on reform.

"The process seems to have stalled since the Gowers Report and they need to not lose the opportunity to reform copyright law because the opportunity will just disappear," Killock told OUT-LAW.COM. "There is a lack of courage and vision. The Government is listening to the big established players and understanding their arguments about what copyright law does for them but not understanding the more interesting uses of copyright material that might lead to new businesses, which will depend on a more flexible copyright law."

"There is a paradox that innovation does't happen because the laws are so strict, which means the businesses aren't there and their voice isn't heard," he said.

Consumers International produced the report, which is the first edition of its planned IP Watch List. It surveyed copyright laws in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, India, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, the UK and the US.

"UK copyright law is substantially different from that of other countries," said the report. "Copyright is treated as property right…and hence copyright owners have the right to decide whether and how the copyrighted work is used."

"There are no fair use exceptions in UK law, only some limited permitted acts. There is no provision that may be termed “private copying” exception and UK copyright law does not distinguish between private or corporate copyright infringement. However private infringement is generally treated as a civil offense, where commercial infringement may be treated as civil or criminal offense," said the report.

Gowers' report made recommendations for the updating of intellectual property laws and many were implemented by Government, which accepted that all of his recommendations should be put into practice.

Crucial recommendations such as the legalising of 'format shifting' legally owned music on CDs to MP3 players and the introduction of a right of parody have not been implemented.

"The industry said that it would not prosecute, that it wasn't bothered about format shifting, so the Government's view seems to be that that takes the pressure off," said Killock. "You would think that if the law is out of date they would bring it into line."

The five countries rated best for user protections in copyright law by Consumers International were India, South Korea, China, the US and Indonesia. The five worst were the UK, Thailand, Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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