Soon, this article will be a crime

Observations on copyright laws

If I were to write this article next year, I would be making myself (technically) a criminal. This is because I am about to discuss ways in which people can circumvent copy protection on CDs and DVDs. And if you (or your teenage son or daughter) were to copy a CD on to your computer or watch certain DVDs on your television, you too would be breaking the law.

The source of this criminality is something called the European Union Copyright Directive, passed by the European Parliament in May 2001, which will be law in member-states by this Christmas.

Unfortunately for schoolteachers, librarians, DJs and, most of all, consumers, the directive serves the interests only of the entertainment industry. It diminishes the concept of "fair dealing" that has been part of UK copyright law since parliament enacted the Statute of Anne in 1710. "Fair dealing" means that once you have bought a copyrighted work, the copyright owner does not control how you use it. Now, after 300 years, Article 6 of the EU's directive outlaws "devices, products, components or services designed to circumvent technological measures" that protect copyrighted content.

Most new CDs contain such "technological measures". To stop people sharing digital music files over the internet, the record industry is issuing CDs that cannot be copied on to a computer's hard drive. But many people copy CDs on to their computers with no intention of sharing the music over the internet. Indeed, many of the latest computers are marketed as "digital entertainment centres" that can hold and play all your music. The software quickly finds and plays that song which has been going through your head, so that you don't have to root through stacks of CDs in search of it. It also allows you to compile a selection of your favourite songs and "burn" your own CD, which can then be played, say, in your car or any other CD player you happen to own. Or they allow you to transfer your music files to a portable MP3 player, currently the must-have gadget for the audiophile.

If you ever purchase a DVD in, say, the US, you may well find that your DVD player won't play the damn thing once you get home. The use of "regional encoding" in DVDs gives Hollywood total control over distribution and thus allows the industry to charge UK consumers £19.99 for a film that is probably selling for the equivalent of £5 in the US. And if you want to copy your DVD on to a computer hard drive, you will find that the Hollywood suits have a "technological measure" to stop you doing that as well.

Copy-protected CDs and DVDs are an expensive nuisance and, although teachers, lecturers, librarians, radio DJs and so on will be able to get special permission from the Department of Trade and Industry to ignore the restrictions on copying them, ordinary Joes like you and me won't.

It's no surprise, then, that clever people have figured out ways to get round the technological roadblocks that prevent them from enjoying their legally purchased goods: running a felt-tipped pen round the outside edge of a CD, for example, or pressing buttons on your DVD player's remote control in a particular sequence.

The recording industry and Hollywood are working side by side with computer industry giants such as Intel and Microsoft to develop new "technological methods" that will allow them to monitor how you use their copyrighted digital content, tracking your use of a song, say, to make sure you don't send it to a friend over the internet, and giving them the ability to remove files or even disable your computer if they so desire. Again, if you try to stop them, you will be the criminal.