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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.