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iTunes is no more illegal now than it ever was as private copy exception gets a rethink

By | Published on Monday 10 August 2015


So, as we predicted when the music industry hailed its recent victory in the High Court over the UK government’s plan to introduce a private copy right without any compensation for the music community, this development has been spun in the tech press as the big bad music business trying to stop consumers doing what they’ve always done anyway. Though even we didn’t expect Torrentfreak’s story to that effect to be so widely picked up by the mainstream press.

In amongst all the “iTunes in the UK is now practically ILLEGAL” headlines (thank you Daily Mail), let’s just recap. In theory, if you rip a CD to your PC, that is copyright infringement and the record label that released the record could sue you. Though realistically they never would. Which is why this is a stupid bit of law, and why everyone – including nearly every single person working in the music industry – agrees that there should be a so called ‘private copy right’, like there is in most other countries, and which we had for a short time here too. Until it got abolished in the High Court.

To repeat: the music industry doesn’t oppose the idea of a ‘private copy right’ in principle. The issue is that, elsewhere in Europe, the music industry is compensated for all the private copies being made, traditionally via a levy put on blank cassettes and CDRs, and more recently on MP3 players, and in some countries now on smartphones and tablets too.

But when the UK government finally got around to introducing a private copy right over here they decided to do so without compensation for the music community. It was that bit of the new law that the music industry opposed, arguing that it was unfair and, more importantly, not in line with European copyright rules. Which is how the High Court could quash the new private copy right. It remains to be seen what the government does next. The music industry wants a private copy right with compensation.

However, as we’ve said before, and we’ll say it again, even if you think the music industry’s interpretation of European law was right on this (as the High Court did), and even though some of the private copy levies in Europe go straight to musicians and songwriters (so it’s not just feeding the corporate machine), in our mind the private copy levy isn’t something worth fighting for.

First, what do you even add the levy to these days? Many smartphone owners will rightly say that they don’t use their device for any music, let alone music ripped from CD. Secondly, most people assumed they were allowed to rip tracks from CDs anyway, so it seems like they are now being asked to pay for something they already did, which is a hard sell in PR terms.

And really this is all about PR. Copyright owners need to put more value on having a copyright system that is credible. And while all the misreporting on the private copy right last week might not be the music industry’s fault, it was almost inevitable. And if you truly value the credibility of copyright, the money a private copy right levy could generate in the final few years of music ownership ain’t so impressive.