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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George Osborne's double U-turn allows him to change while remaining the same

The Chancellor abandoned cuts to tax credits and the police but stuck to his target of a £10bn budget surplus. 

The U-turn is an underrated manoeuvre in politics. At a stroke, it reduces opponents to complaining that the government has done what they told it to do. As long as the U-turn is in the right direction, the voters, who pay little attention to such matters, are usually content.

The best climbdowns are often the fullest. In his Autumn Statement and Spending Review, George Osborne proved this not once but twice. As so often, the Treasury briefings that the Chancellor would merely provide "transitional" support for tax credit claimants were designed to lead reporters off the scent. Rather than modifying the cuts to in-work benefits, Osborne abandoned them entirely. In the face of the formidable coalition of Boris Johnson (his chief leadership rival), Tory backbenchers, the Sun, the work and pensions select committee, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Adam Smith Institute, he capitulated.

He does so at the cost of breaching his self-imposed welfare cap for three years. But this will only have the effect of amplifying his generosity. In fact, the cuts have merely been deferred (till 2020 as tax credits are absorbed by Universal Credit), rather than abandoned. But today at least, the Chancellor has got the headlines he wanted. 

After the Paris attacks, another formidable coalition of interests had inveighed against police cuts. And again, Osborne met their demands in full. Having suggested as recently as last weekend that there would be signifcant cuts (another bluff), he revealed in his peroration that there would be none at all. "The police protect us, and we’re going to protect the police," he declared. Just as his tax credits U-turn shielded him from one leadership challenger (Boris), so this move shielded him from another (Home Secretary Theresa May). The Foreign Office budget, he also announced would be protected in real-terms, joining health, international development and defence behind the ring-fence. 

The skill of Osborne's statement was to change while remaining the same. Against expectations, he announced that his promised budget surplus in 2020 had not fallen but risen to £10.1bn (up £0.1bn). Gross tax increases of £28.5bn, including the new apprenticeship levy (£11.6bn), higher council tax (£6.2bn) and higher stamp duty for second homes and buy-to-let purchases (£3.8bn), as well as lower debt interest payments mean that he is still forecast to eliminate the deficit (albeit years later than originally promised). Staring intently at John McDonnell, he vowed that the Tories would "fix the roof while the sun is shining" (the shadow chancellor having told me that he would "throw up" if he heard the line again). 

But Osborne's decision to avoid the most hazardous cuts should not distract from those that remain. The average cut to unprotected departments, including transport, business and communities and local government - is 19 per cent. After the reductions in the last parliament, any fat has largely been eliminated. The Chancellor will be cutting into bone. If past experience is any guide, today's U-turns will not be his last. But as history also shows, that may not be to his cost. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.