Today, the government published its response to the recent consultations about copyright exceptions, and just generally clarifying and modernising UK copyright laws for the digital age. In it they do address a number of key problems that have arisen in applying our outdated copyright laws to the digital age, but they avoid taking on the issue of DRM and the illegality of DRM-circumvention without exception.
On the positive side, the government has agreed to allow private copying of media for personal use. There has long been an oddity under UK law that it was illegal for music fans to buy an album on CD and then rip that CD into MP3s for listening on their laptop or iPod – and this will now be rectified. By allowing users to copy for private use, the government is essentially legalising “format shifting”, where people buy music, video, and then convert it to another format for use with another device.
Interestingly, the report also talks of “online cloud storage” as part of the private copying exception. here they may simply be talking of online backup solutions such as DropBox, but it does imply that users could use a service such as Amazon’s Cloud Drive to store their music and films and then stream them to their own devices over the internet. record labels have attempted to charge cloud providers for the ability to offer this service, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out in reality. The government have shown that they understand the need for these copyright laws to be technologically neutral, and as much of people’s data is moved to the cloud, it is good to see the law prepared for this.
One area which needs are full rethink, however, is how digital rights management “DRM” (or technological protection measures “TPM” in UK and EU law) is protected in legislation. DRM is inherently anti-consumer as it artificially limits how a person can use the media they have purchased, such as stopping them from using the format shifting exceptions prescribed by law. You may soon be legally allowed to copy a DVD to your iPad for watching on the train in theory, but because DVDs use DRM known as CSS (a very simply broken content scrambling mechanism), actually doing that personal copying would be illegal. It would not be the copying that is illegal in this case, but the circumventing the DRM to let you copy in the first place.
Giving DRM these special legal protections, as set out by Europe in the Copyright Directive, is an annoyance for most people and may force them to buy the content in more than one form (such as on DVD and then as an iTunes download), the real issues come for those attempting to archive the materials or for those with disabilities such as blindness. There are legal exceptions in the report to allow places such as libraries to make copies of materials for archiving, or for people with disabilities to transform the work into a format that they can make use of such as turning a protected eBook into a format that their audio reader software can handle. However, as DRM will prevent them from performing these actions and the DRM is legally protected, it is extremely difficult for a work-around to be found. The disabled will have to send request to the secretary of state to petition to be allowed to “override” the DRM.
DRM was removed from the online music stores in order to push people towards purchasing music online rather than piracy. This response from the government should have stripped the legal protections that DRM receives, which would have simplified and reduced the cost of many of the implementations. All DRM can easily be circumvented using the free tools available on the internet, and those downloading the materials illegally have already had the DRM stripped out for them so it only affects paying customers.
This whole consultation and report was aimed to clarify the UK laws governing copyright, and in many ways they have succeeded. However, by continuing to legally support a system which is inherently anti-consumer, and makes many of their exceptions impossible to implement in reality this was a wasted chance.