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A Nation Of Criminals: How Burning CDs & DRM Are Changing The Music Business

A Nation Of Criminals: How Burning CDs & DRM Are Changing The Music Business

I’ve always been under the impression that it was legal in the UK to use my iPod, and legal to copy music from CDs I’d purchased onto it. I own roughly 1000 CDs, and have recently gone through the pain of ‘ripping’ all of them to my home computer in an effort to reduce the space they all take up in my living room. Contrary to my belief (and I imagine most other people’s), it would seem that copying any of these CDs onto my iPod or my home PC is in fact technically illegal, breaking the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Chapter II Section 17 : Infringement of Copyright by Copying
Paragraph (2) Copying in relation to a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work means reproducing the work in any material form. This includes storing the work in any medium by electronic means.

In a consultation document released yesterday by the government, they outline proposed modifications to the law to deal with issues such as ‘format shifting’, i.e. ripping your CDs to your personal music player or computer.

It is proposed to create a new exception that would allow consumers to make a copy of a work they legally own, so that they can make the work accessible in another format for playback on a device in their lawful possession. The exception would only apply to personal or private use.

Though questions still remain.

• What classes of works would it apply to? Sound recordings and films or works of all kinds?
• Exactly what acts would be non-infringing? What is meant by personal and private use?
• How many format shifts would be allowed? Should consumers be allowed to format shift to a range of play back devices and to format shift again when certain technologies become obsolete?
• Would the exception apply to works created or purchased after the exception was introduced or would it be acceptable to format shift back catalogues?

Clarifying the law is vitally important of course, particularly when many millions of people are unintentionally breaking it. (And a significant number intentionally breaking it).

The Guardian reports Hamish Porter, a partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse, as saying

“There is a danger that it will be interpreted by the young as a green light to burn CDs for their friends.”

though I personally am not so convinced that ‘the young’ actually paid that much attention to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 in the first place.

John Tehranian, a law professor at the University of Utah has calculated the yearly copyright violation liability for a hypothetical law professor at $4.5 billion, should the copyright holders enforce their rights to the maximum extent, and highlights the huge disparity between current US legislation and common practice amongst consumers.

As Madhavi Sunder has powerfully argued, we are in the midst of a “‘Participation Age’ of remix culture, blogs, podcasts, wikis, and peer-to-peer file-sharing. This new generation views intellectual properties as the raw materials for its own creative acts, blurring the lines that have long separated producers from consumers.” In the digital age, we are all regular consumers and producers of copyrighted content.

Finding the correct balance between protecting the rights of copyright holders and allowing consumers to use the content they have purchased is a key issue in the digital age, and the Government’s consultation paper could have significant and long term ramifications for how things move forward. Worth a read, and probably even worth a response.


Last year Radiohead gave this balance an experimental kicking by releasing their new album to download online at a price of the fan’s choosing. The album was released physically in shops at the start of the month.

‘In Rainbows’ has entered the UK album charts at number one, despite effectively being given away for free three months earlier. I’m not overly surprised by this, given the fierce loyalty displayed by Radiohead fans, and also the simple fact that 160Mbps MP3s just don’t sound anywhere near as good as a CD when played on a decent stereo system.

In addition, some clever packaging may also have added to the appeal of the physical goods; a paper CD case, complete with stickers and inserts inside forming a ‘kit’ to make your own shiny CD case.

YouTube Preview Image

Meanwhile, Sony BGM announced their plans to join the other big three music labels in selling items from their catalogues without DRM. I believe this is a step in the right direction for them; the music labels simply must make it easier and more attractive to purchase tracks from them rather than downloading them from illegal sources. However, Sony have a long way to go, as comments like these illustrate.

Finally, rather sad news – UK users of the rather wonderful Pandora service will be cut off from 15th January in a row over licensing fees. Pandora is a ‘music discovery service’ akin to Last.fm but one which works rather differently. Pick a starting point of a piece of music or artist you like and it then plays tracks by other artists which match the characteristics of the track based on the Music Genome Project . You can read more about how this works here. The end result is a wonderful means of finding new artists, albums or songs you might like, and I’ve used this frequently myself to find new music.Founder Tim Westergren sent an e-mail to subscribers describing the shutdown.

Both the PPL (which represents the record labels) and the MCPS/PRS Alliance (which represents music publishers) have demanded per track performance minima rates which are far too high to allow ad-supported radio to operate and so, hugely disappointing and depressing to us as it is, we have to block the last territory outside of the US. It continues to astound me and the rest of the team here that the industry is not working more constructively to support the growth of services that introduce listeners to new music and that are totally supportive of paying fair royalties to the creators of music. I don’t often say such things, but the course being charted by the labels and publishers and their representative organizations is nothing short of disastrous for artists whom they purport to represent – and by that I mean both well known and indie artists. The only consequence of failing to support companies like Pandora that are attempting to build a sustainable radio business for the future will be the continued explosion of piracy, the continued constriction of opportunities for working musicians, and a worsening drought of new music for fans. As a former working musician myself, I find it very troubling.

An MCPS/PRS spokesman said:

Licences are available for all online and mobile services and the terms applicable to webcasters were set down in the UK last year by an official independent and expert panel know as the Copyright Tribunal. In reaching its determination the panel heard considerable evidence from all sides of the online music business.

I find all these stories fascinating, each a small piece in the bigger story of how we are dealing with content, copyright, and fair use, and how we are to deal with these issues going forward. Technology is rendering obsolete many of our prior ways of thinking and working, and the sand is constantly moving under our feet as we try to find the right balance. Our old laws are in dire need of an overhaul. Some pioneers are successfully making use of this new technological playing field, and some are being blocked from innovating. Overall, these are interesting times to say the least.

Header image: Daveybot at Flickr

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