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1 October 2014

Taking the piss just became legally easier with new copyright exceptions for comedy

Changes to intellectual property law also make it legal to backup digital files to other formats and devices.

By Ian Steadman

Satirists, rejoice! After stops and starts, a major new reform of intellectual property law has come into effect today, including a new exception to copyright restrictions for “parody, caricature and pastiche”, alongside a range of other long-overdue changes.

This brings British law into line with that in other countries like the US which have “fair use” laws, except here the Intellectual Property Office is calling it “fair dealing”. This means that a range of actions which might have seemed completely innoccuous – like mocking a musician by quoting some of their lyrics in a parody tune, or using clips from commercial films as part of a critique – are now legal, as long as they comply with what “a fair-minded and honest person” would have done in the same situation. (This is very much on of those legal definitions that puts a lot of trust in common sense, for good or ill.)

The change comes on the heels of a government review of IP law which began in 2010, and which recommended a range of options to reform the system. This is the second major change this year – on 1 June, a raft of measures went into effect loosening the restrictions on the use of copyrighted material in academic settings. Disabled people were given the legal right to make accessible versions of copyrighted material – say, produce subtitles for a movie – if there wasn’t one available.

Today’s reforms also include a hefty exception for “format-shifting” – that is, if you own a DVD of a film, you’re now allowed to copy it to your computer and then burn a copy for personal use, or load it onto your phone, or even upload it to a personal cloud backup account. It was one of the oddities of UK IP law that ripping CDs to a computer and loading it onto an MP3 player wasn’t ever legal, yet almost everyone did it and almost nobody in the industry really cared. (Especially when digital piracy was a much more serious threat.) The only problem with the changes now are that they come so late that the question of ripping and burning to physical media is almost redundant, as laptops stop shipping with disc drives and everyone streams their music from the cloud.

The IPO’s site has a list of what are now the permitted exceptions to copyright. Today’s new regulations were meant to be introduced over the summer, but were held back as parliamentary approval took longer than expected.

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However, there is one significant omission in the latest changes: it’s still illegal to use footage of parliamentary debates for satirical purposes. Not that some comedians don’t still find ways to mock the rich and powerful…