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Consumer Focus calls for copyright law rewrite

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Consumer rights advocate Consumer Focus has called on the government to fix copyright laws broken by the rise of digital technology.

CF's argument is that now the UK's population has amassed a sizeable collection of computers, iPods and phones, members of the public have been busily rippings CDs and DVDs in order to get content to play on all these gadgets.

The problem is that, under current UK law, doing so is illegal.

CF's research found that only 17 per cent of punters know it's against the law to rip a commercially released CD or DVD on to a computer, and even fewer - 15 per cent - know it's also illegal to copy the ripped files to a portable media player.

Yet 38 per cent of respondents said they have done so, and we suspect the percentage is actually much higher.

But we're not convinced the public would change their behaviour even if they knew it was illegal.

After all, who's going to grass?

And we suspect that's one of the main reasons why the law hasn't been changed. It is, to a great degree, unenforceable.

But CF is right to say that this is a nonsensical state of affairs, and to suggest that what's needed is a rewrite of UK copyright law to extend the principle of fair use to personal copying.

Fair use doesn't bypass copyright, it simply names instances where infringement can't be punished. For example, it allows academics to quote copyright material in their articles. Photocopying a page in a book is an infringement of copyright unless the copyist has written permission from the book's publisher, but fair use provides a shield against legal action.

It is provided because legislators realised that it would be impractical for boffins and students to ask each publisher every time they wanted to quote something. Similarly, reviewers can quote from copyright works, and we can publish screen grabs of software we're writing about.

US law provides similar cover for folk taking content they have legitimately acquired and copying it for personal use only. CF wants Brits to get the same protection.

Ironically, the government agrees but, said CF, it's waiting for the European Union to formally define what the term 'non-commercial use' - how 'personal use' would be stated in law - actually means. A 2003 amendment to the Copyright, Designs and Patent 1988 Act incorporates the notion of 'non-commercial use', and EU law doesn't prevent the UK government from acting on its own in this regard.

We would agree, but with a general election in the offing, we can't see it happening any time soon. ®

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