Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Private copying - a new copyright exception in the UK

Hooray! We (in the UK) now have a "private copy" exception to copyright. About time too. Until recently, many forms of private copying were infringements of copyright. In particular format shifting such as copying music from your old CD's and DVD's onto your phone or making a "mix tape" for your own use were infringements of copyright and, if you believe some of the rhetoric of the music industry, morally equivalent to theft.

By contrast, almost everyone seemed both to engage in private copying and to think it was OK. Indeed a recent survey I conducted suggests that the vast majority of people think that format shifting is OK (a 95% credible interval of 89 - 93% of the population). So it is very surprising that the law continued to turn its face against something subject to such overwhelming approval.


The new law comes in the form of the Copyright and Rights in Performances (Personal Copies for Private Use) Regulations 2014, which is as yet only available in draft. It will come into force on 1st October and add a new section 28B to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

The effect of the new law is that making a copy of a work is not an infringement, subject to 3 conditions:

  • the source of the copy (i.e. what you are copying from) is either your "own copy" or a "personal copy"
  • it is made for your private use
  • it is made for ends which are "neither directly nor indirectly commercial"

Own copy

Your "own copy" of a work is one which:

  • you have lawfully acquired
  • on a "permanent basis"
  • is not an infringing copy
  • has not been made under any exception to copyright

This means that you cannot use the private copy exception to "launder" an infringement, eg by copying a work from a friend (still an infringement) and then making a copy of that copy. Similarly, a copy made for private study or research (an exception to copyright under section 29 of the 1988 Act) or a temporary copy, such as one in the browser's cache (see section 28A) is not your "own copy" and so cannot be safely duplicated under the private copy exception.

Your "own copy" is not necessarily a copy that you "own" in the intellectual property law sense. As I read it "lawfully acquired" includes a download which is only made available under licence. In the long run almost all digital content will be downloaded in some fashion rather than bought on a physical medium so a restriction to "owned" copies would be hopelessly restrictive.

The tricky part of the definition is likely to be what is meant by "lawfully acquired on a permanent basis"?

The new section 28B(4) "helpfully" give a short list of examples of copies that are or are not "lawfully acquired on a permanent basis". I am not sure they help all that much. Unsurprisingly copies which have been borrowed, rented, broadcast or streamed are not "acquired on a permanent basis". The same applies to a "download enabling no more than temporary access to a copy", whereas any other download that arises from a purchase or gift would be lawfully acquired on a permanent basis.

Could a copyright owner get around this exception by selling works for very long periods (decades perhaps) with a provision that the work reverts to the owner at the end? I doubt it. My hope is that the courts apply a normal English understanding to the words "temporary" and "permanent". For example, if I say I have a temporary job, you would be a bit surprised to learn that I have a fixed term of 30 years. You are more likely to describe my post as permanent.

Personal copies

A further example of something that is not your "own copy" is a copy made under the private copy exception. These are known as "personal copies". For example a lawful backup copy of an mp3 music file is not your "own copy", but it is a "personal copy". This means, as you would expect, that you can copy your backup copies.

Private use and file lockers

Just in case there was any doubt, the new s28B will make it clear that making back up copies and format shifting are certainly private use. Interestingly s28B(5)(c) makes it clear that storing a copy online so that you can access it later is also "private use" even though the file will be accessible to the file host as well.

This means that you will be able to store your own and personal copies of files on Dropbox (privately at least) and on similar servers.


Section 28B will apply fairly common-sense provisions to transfers. If you transfer a personal copy (i.e. one of the copies you have made under this exception) to someone else, you will be infringing copyright unless the copyright owner has given you permission to do so. Personal copies are not meant to change hands. Even if the transfer is otherwise lawful, you would infringe copyright if you retained any of your other personal copies.

For example: if you buy a DVD, make a back up, and then sell the DVD second-hand (something you are entitled to do under section 18(3) of the 1988 Act), you must delete that back up copy. If you keep the back up copy it becomes and infringing copy and stops being a "personal copy".

Is lending OK?

But wait there is something a little odd here. Section 28B(6) says "Copyright in a work is infringed if an individual transfers a personal copy of the work to another person (otherwise than on a private and temporary basis)...". That appears to suggest that it is OK to transfer a personal copy of the work to another person if it is done on a private and temporary basis.

Could my "private use" include lending copies - on a temporary basis only - to friends? There is certainly material in s28B for such an argument. Whether it would run in court is another matter.

Restrictions by the copyright owner

One point that (bafflingly) appears to have upset a number of politicians is the new 28B(10) which blocks copyright owners from preventing private copying by contract. Clearly without such a clause it would be routine to add a provision that private copying was in breach of contract and we might as well not have bothered.

Copyright owners could also use a form of digital rights management to prevent private copying. Circumventing that protection may, at least for something that is not a computer program, itself be an infringement contrary to s296ZA.

It is already the law that, where digital rights management (what is referred to in the legislation as "effective technological measures) prevents one of a list of "permitted acts" (found in schedule 5A of the 1988 Act) then anyone prevented from doing the permitted act may complain to the Secretary of State, who may then do something about it.

This has always seemed to me a rather weak remedy since the Secretary of State is not obliged to do anything about it. When I last asked, no valid complaints appear ever to have been made.

Rather than make private copying another "permitted act" and thus apply the existing mechanism to it, the regulations will create a new s296ZEA. The main difference from 296ZE appears to be that it applies not only when the making of personal copies is prevented, but also when there is a technological restriction that restricts the number of personal copies which may be made. Whether anyone complains to the Secretary of State remains to be seen, please let me know if you do.

Legacy copies

If you made a copy in the past that would have been a "personal copy" if the new law had been in force back then - for example it would have to have been made from your "own copy" and been for individual private use - then that copy is now a personal copy.

Those old mix tapes that people made will become (on 1st October) "personal copies" and so may be lawfully backed up etc provided of course the mix tape was made from their owners "own copy" etc. Oddly the making of the copy (in the past) is still an infringement and so a copyright owner could, in principle, sue you for making private copies in the past, but nothing can be done about your use or possession of them now.

What about compensation?

One objection to these regulations raised by some rights owners is that there should be provision for them to receive some form of compensation for the private copying.

The power used to make the regulations derives from article 5(2)(b) of the Information Society Directive (2001/29/EC) which allows member states of the EU to provide for exceptions to the "reproduction right" (i.e. the right to copy):

in respect of reproductions on any medium made by a natural person for private use and for ends that are neither directly nor indirectly commercial, on condition that the rightholders receive fair compensation which takes account of the application or non-application of technological measures referred to in Article 6 to the work or subject-matter concerned

This would appear to mean that some form of "fair compensation" is required. In many EU countries this takes the form of a levy, for example on CD's, that is then distributed via collecting societies.

But recital 35 of the directive says that in assessing the level of fair compensation "account should be taken of the circumstances of each case" and "In cases where rightholders have already received payment in some other form, for instance as part of a licence fee, no specific or separate payment may be due.". The argument made by the UK government is that because private copying is restricted to a lawfully acquired work, the rights owner will have already priced in any private copying when charging for that access and so there is no need for any further payment. The level of "fair compensation" is nil.

Whether this argument is likely to be challenged by any part of the copyright industry I do not know. Given that private copying, of the kind that will be permitted by section 28B, is almost universal, it is hard to believe that these regulations will impose any further, quantifiable, loss on rights owners. It seems tome that the very limited private copy exception should not entitle rights owners to any further compensation. We shall see.