Rejoice! It's finally not illegal to rip CDs

The Hargreaves review finally makes UK copyright law suitable for 1998.

The government has announced that it will be implementing the majority of copyright reforms contained in the Hargreaves Review, the commission which reported last year with recommendations for how to bring the UK's intellectual property regime up-to-date.

The top-line change is that the UK will finally gain a format-shifting exemption, meaning that it will no longer be illegal to copy music from a CD to an iPhone (yes, it is technically illegal still) – just in time for the switch to digital purchases to really take-off, of course. But better late than never.

This format-shifting exemption is much more limited than it sounds, however, since breaking digital rights management (DRM) will remain illegal. This is a trick that content producers in the United States, where format shifting has always been legal, have used to get around those laws. DRM is the technology which prevents consumers from copying DVDs, Blu-rays, or most legally downloaded movies.

But much of that copy-protection is just a token lock designed to bring the content under the protection of the law. The system which protects DVDs, for instance, was broken over thirteen years ago; despite this, it remains illegal to transfer movies from DVDs onto computers, a fact which almost certainly retarded technological progression by rendering it impossible for a video equivalent of the iPod to make economic sense.

There is a silver lining, however; if DRM is preventing you from exercising legal rights, you will have the right to complain to the Secretary of State about it. The implication is that they may then decide to grant an exemption, but the BIS spokesperson refused to confirm that that was the case.

Other changes are more useful. The government is planning to introduce a parody exemption, which would allow stuff like the fantastic Newport State of Mind to carry on existing, rather than being taken down over copyright infringement.

The changes also allow far greater flexibility for education, quotation, research and analysis, and grant people with disabilities "the right to obtain copyright works in accessible formats" when there isn't already one available on the market.

Vince Cable said:

Making the intellectual property framework fit for the 21st century is not only common sense but good business sense. Bringing the law into line with ordinary people’s reasonable expectations will boost respect for copyright, on which our creative industries rely.

The Coalition for a Digital Economy, which was founded in response to the last government's disastrous Digital Economy Act, supported the changes, saying:

We are delighted that the Government has now announced their plans for modernising copyright. These measures will help to provide certainty for digital entrepreneurs working with copyright and rights holders alike. The report comes after an exhaustive 16 month period of consultation and the strength of the argument for reform shines through.

These reforms are clearly an improvement on the law as it stands, but they remain mere incremental improvements. Without addressing the questions at the heart of copyright and intellectual property – chiefly, whether the protections exist to encourage the production of copyrighted works, or to allow the owners of copyrighted works to extract as much value a possible from them – then there will remain problems with the implementation.

And while the changes are more friendly to digital industries than much legislation which affects them, the continued overprotection in a number of areas doesn't do a whole lot to disabuse the notion that the entertainment industry has too much power in this field. Where's the clarification about whether or not you can sell downloads second-hand? And isn't it time consumers were given some rights above and beyond the standard "permanent license which can be revoked at any time" that digital stores offer, despite using the language of buying and selling?

Nonetheless, the implementation of Hargreaves recommendations is to be welcomed. I might just shift some formats to celebrate.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle