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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.