Format-Shifting: The Difference Between Illegal and Wrong
10th May 2011 22:45 | by Will Tovey
Format-shifting, space-shifting and time-shifting are curious oddities of copyright law. Two of these three are currently illegal in the UK, all are routinely done by thousands, if not millions of people across the country. While many of these people are merely unaware what they are doing it illegal, very few view it as wrong.
Could Ripping CDs Become Legal? Photocredit; Mutednarayan, Flickr (CC-BY-SA)
Time-shifting is where a work, covered by copyright, is copied so that it can be viewed or listened to at a more convenient time and has been legal since 1988. The most common version of this is when a TV or radio broadcaslit is recorded (originally onto cassette tapes, more often onto hard drives) so that it can be watched later, at a more convenient time.
Space-shifting is much the same, but where the work is copied to a different location (i.e. from a computer onto a music player) so that it can be used in a more convenient place. Format-shifting is where a work is adapted or adjusted, so that it is in a more convenient format. This would include copying something from a cassette or record onto a CD, or copying a CD onto a computer or music player. Under current UK law, this is usually an infringement of copyright, or an act of piracy.
There are some exceptions; such as for works not covered by copyright or where the person doing the copying has a licence to do so. This is why music files downloaded through certain legal services (such as iTunes or AmazonMP3) may be copied to a portable music player or a different computer, depending on the agreement. In addition, there are some exceptions in law, but very few of these are likely to be relevant as they are very narrow.
The UK appears to be one of the few places where format-shifting is still illegal. In the US, this sort of activity is covered by "fair use" and in much of Europe and Canada copying for private use is permitted in return for a "blank media levy". In Australia, copyright law was recently amended to add some personal use exceptions. Over the last decade, there have been several attempts to update our law, but they have all failed.
In 2006, the Gowers Review suggested that format-shifting should be legalised. More recently, in response to the Hargreaves Review of IP Law, many groups called for a change to the law and even the most aggressive copyright groups such as the BPI came out in support of the legalisation of format-shifting in their response - previously they had only indicated they were unlikely to take legal action against those doing infringing this way.
As for support from the general public, a Consumer Focus survey early last year found that 38% of people admitted copying CDs, and 4 in 5 thought copyright law needed updating. In a recent Twitter survey run by the Pirate Party (as part of the #PPUkSurvey project), all those who responded admitted to format-shifting and thought it should be legal.
One of the suggestions made by Consumer Focus was that this activity was going on because many people thought that format-shifting was perfectly legal - and given the situation elsewhere, it is not surprising people might think that way. This could be quite important as one of the main purposes of the Digital Economy Act is to "educate" the general public by letting them know that online file-sharing is illegal and morally wrong.
However, the #PPUkSurvey found that most people were aware that format-shifting was illegal, but did it anyway. While it is illegal, most people do not see it as being morally wrong; the attitude seems to be that if someone has paid for something they should be able to use it how they want.
There are some arguments against this; such as format-shifting leading to "lost sales" (as people would have to purchase copies of works in every format they wanted) or taking control away from authors and artists - mostly the same arguments raised against 'normal' file-sharing. It seems that in this case, even the major record labels are finding these arguments insufficient.
Changing the law in this area could take some time - not least due to potential conflicts with EU law. For now, we are stuck with a law that no one seems to want, is unenforceable and is routinely ignored by the people. When the majority of the population think there is nothing wrong with something technically illegal, and a significant proportion are willing to do it anyway, is it any wonder that there is so little respect for our copyright law?
There is a more legalistic take on this issue, including the legal options for and obstacles against legalising format-shifting, on my personal site, here.
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