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Put 'fair use' right in UK copyright law, says NCC

Just 19% of people are aware that they break the law in the UK by copying a CD to their computer or iPod, according to the National Consumer Council (NCC), which wants to see a "fair use" right inserted in the country's "absurd" copyright laws.15 May 2006

The survey was carried out for the NCC by YouGov. It found that 55% of consumers copy their CDs to other devices. Most of us are unwitting infringers: three in five Britons think that copying for personal use is legal. Other countries – including the US and most of the EU – provide a right to reproduce copyrighted material for private use.

Copying for personal use is not a new thing. For years, people copied their vinyl records to cassette to play in their cars. Few people realised they infringed copyright in doing so – and the music industry didn't care. The advent of digital copying gave the industry more cause for concern; but it has always seemed unreasonable to ask consumers to pay twice for the same music and the industry has focused its attention on stopping those who make their music available to many others without permission. But the responses of 2,135 adults in the YouGov research gauge the lack of consumer awareness to the law.

The survey supports NCC's recent response to the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property. Andrew Gowers, formerly the editor of the Financial Times, was tasked by HM Treasury to lead this independent review of intellectual property rights in the UK. A public consultation ran between February and April.

The NCC's submission to the Gowers Review argues that copyright law is out of step with modern life and discriminates unfairly against consumers, putting unrealistic limits on their private listening and viewing habits.

Jill Johnstone, author of NCC’s submission, said: "We need to shake up the copyright law to incorporate consumers’ ‘fair use’ rights – including the right to copy for private use."

She added that the current long periods of copyright protection need reforming, too.

The period of protection for copyright has been increased before, allowing not only the creators (or the companies that have bought their rights) to receive rewards, but also their descendants. Copyright in artistic works (including literary, dramatic and musical works) now lasts until 70 years after the death of the author, while films’ copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the last surviving major contributor to their artistic character (director, composer, screenwriter). Sound recordings are currently protected for 50 years from ‘publication’, although there is an increasingly vocal campaign to extend this period. Broadcasts are protected for 50 years, while their ‘published’ editions are protected for 25 years.

"Whether for films, literary or musical works, sound recordings or broadcasts, the length of all copyright terms should be reduced to fit more closely the time period over which most financial returns are normally made," said Johnstone. "The current campaign by the music industry to extend copyright terms for sound recordings beyond 50 years has no justification."

The NCC says that music companies generally make returns on material in a matter of years, not decades. "Current terms already provide excessive protection of intellectual property rights at a cost to consumers," she added.

The Gowers Review is due to report its findings in autumn 2006.

Expertise in Copyright

Copyright is an extremely valuable, often unrecognised or misunderstood right which protects a whole range of original materials including written materials, software, artistic materials, music and dramatic works. It arises automatically without the need for registration in most countries and protects these materials from unauthorised copying. It is essential in business to identify such rights, ensure they are owned by the correct entity, properly protected, enforced and exploited.

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