Australian copyright law is ridiculous

For a number of years it was illegal for an Australian to tape the footy and watch it later. At one time it was also illegal to copy music from a CD and onto an iPod. This sort of innocuous activity (known as format-shifting) was eventually permitted by amendments to the Copyright Act 1968. Mostly.

By Schedule 6, Part 2 of the Copyright Amendment Act 2006, “Reproducing copyright material in different format for private use”, the following activities are allowed:

  • “Recording broadcasts for replaying at more convenient time” (such as taping the footy)
  • “Reproducing works in books, newspapers and periodical publications in different form for private use” (such as photocopying an article)
  • “Reproducing photograph in different format for private use” (scanning a hard-copy photo or printing out a digital photo)
  • “Copying sound recordings for private and domestic use” (ripping a CD onto an iPod)
  • “Copying cinematograph film in different format for private use” (coping a film from a VHS tape onto a DVD)

There is a glaring omission here – films on DVD and BD (blu-ray disc) are not mentioned. It’s still illegal to copy a film from a commercial DVD to another format or to another disc, even solely for your own use. If you have a portable video player (like an iPod or an iPhone) it’s illegal for you to rip films onto it. You are legally bound to watch the film through a DVD player.

Parents with young children might think to create a backup of their Spongebob Squarepants DVD, hiding the purchased copy safely out of the way lest their kids accidentally scratch or snap it. Some people may own home theatre PCs, and would like to copy their DVDs to its hard drive, allowing them to browse and play their entire collection from one location. Unfortunately, these are both illegal. When we buy a film on DVD we buy the right to watch it only via that DVD.

The law obviously recognises the value of format-shifting. It understands that there ought to be exceptions to copyright – for reasons of convenience, practicality, or protection of works – as long as it doesn’t hurt the copyright holder. It acknowledges that private use does not adversely affect the copyright holder’s capacity to make a buck (as might be the case if you were to sell bootleg copies). The law therefore allows us to put songs on our iPods, and I can’t see why it should be any different with DVDs or BDs. Surely the same principle should apply?

Perhaps it has something to do with the support that Apple’s iTunes enjoys from numerous music labels, and the lack of an equivalent service for films. One suspects that we wouldn’t have been allowed to rip CDs, either, if not for the existence of iPods.

It’s certainly not an oversight, because the Act drives the point home. DVDs and BDs often include some kind of digital rights management (DRM), to prevent us from copying our own discs. In Schedule 6, Part 2, Subdivision F of the Copyright Amendment Act 2006, “removing or altering electronic rights management information” is listed as in indictable offence (unless you have the permission of the copyright holder). Not only do the film studios block people from copying their films for private use, the Act gives their DRM mechanisms legal protection.

The difference between the private use rights of CDs and DVDs is inexplicable. My conclusion is that copyright law (or parts of it) is dictated by the big players in the film and music industries. In the words of a friend, “the people with the money and intent write the laws.” This is an unfortunate situation. Copyright exists to protect innovation, not to ensure that media conglomerates can sell the same person the same work again and again and again.

A reasonable person would have no moral or ethical problem with format-shifting media they’ve already bought. The Act itself acknowledges this by the way it treats CDs. That the same principle hasn’t been applied to other forms of optical media is disgraceful, as it suggests that film studios had their hands in the legislation.

For more information check out the fact sheets provided by the Australian Copyright Council.