Common criminals

Ever copied a CD to your iPod? Then you've been breaking the law

A young man struts down the street, thin white wires poking out from beneath his hooded top. He swaggers in time to the beats pumping out of his headphones. But his audio pleasure is interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. He swings around.

In front of him stands a police officer. She gestures for him to turn the music down. "Young man," she intones, "I'm going to have to ask you to hand over that portable music device."

Our lad is nonchalant. He hands over the iPod and stares wordlessly at the officer. He thinks he knows what's coming, but she's got nothing on him - he's no illegal downloader.

Our copper scrolls down the track listings: "There's a lot of music on here. Can I ask where you downloaded it from?"

"It's street-legal, officer," replies our young hoodie, finding it hard to conceal his confidence. "I ripped them from my CD collection. Every one of those tracks is paid for."

"Right then, sir," smiles our lady in blue, "I think it's time you took a trip down to the station."

Naturally, this scene never took place - nor is it likely to. Despite our endless appetite for terrorising the young, it will be a long time before borderline civil copyright infringements get any attention from the boys (and girls) in blue. But you'll probably be as surprised as my fictional hoodie to find out that copying your CDs to your iPod is currently illegal.

A European Commission survey shows that 82 per cent of us turned our CDs into digital files in 2006. Another study indicates that 38 per cent of us have format-shifted our entire CD collection to play on MP3 players. Most of us probably don't think we're doing anything illegal. The UK Intellectual Property Office has recognised this, and on 8 April it officially ended a three-month consultation into changing copyright law to permit this sort of format-shifting.

Why would we need a three-month consultation to change a law nobody follows? There are some who think that format-shifting is not OK, that it loses the record industry valuable income. The theory is that if we like the new Gnarls Barkley album, we should pay each time we want to listen to it on a different device. But who is going to make us?

Stop-and-search isn't about to extend to the millions of iPod users. Record labels are proposing a system that adds a fee to digital devices bought in the UK - money that gets paid back to them. It is not unlike the French system, where levies are raised on blank media to compensate for private copying. The National Consumer Council is against this sort of system, as levies end up getting paid on all sorts of media that never see a top 20 hit, such as computer backup disks.

Whoever wins, we will at least be able to walk the streets safe in the knowledge that our iPods aren't breaking the law. Even if they do cost a little more.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back