Copyright and copying music: Can Ireland succeed where the UK failed?

27 Jul 2015

The UK government recently failed to adapt its copyright legislation to allow users to copy music for personal use. Photo via AlexZi/Shutterstock

Have you ever copied songs from an album you own to your MP3 player? Or converted your physical music collection to a digital version stored in the cloud? Under copyright law, this is illegal — but could Ireland update its legislation to match the current model of media consumption? Mason Hayes & Curran investigates.

From Shawn Fanning setting up the peer-to-peer file-sharing service Napster in 1999 to the recent rise of online music streaming services such as Apple Music and Tidal from rapper Jay-Z, it appears that, in the digital age, online music distribution copyright is never far from the headlines.

Now, in a major decision, the UK High Court has set aside the British government’s recently introduced legal exception for private, non-commercial copying of media as the government did not also introduce an appropriate mechanism to fairly compensate rights-holders.

In the UK and Ireland, copying a song from a CD to a computer hard drive requires prior authorisation

Copyright infringement

Pursuant to copyright law in both the UK and Ireland, the creator of a work has a number of exclusive rights that they can exercise to restrict others from using their work.

Copyright in a work is infringed by a person who, without the licence of the copyright owner, undertakes or authorises another to undertake any of the acts restricted by copyright such as copying the work, making the work available to the public or reproducing the work.

By the letter of the law, this means that, in the UK and Ireland, copying a song from a CD to a computer hard drive requires prior authorisation from the rights-holder.

Private copy exception

With this in mind, in 2014, the British government introduced Section 28B into the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This new ‘private copy exception’ created an exception to copyright restrictions.

If a consumer legitimately acquires content in one form, the new regulation permitted them to copy that work onto different media or a different device for their own private use, without infringing copyright law.

In a practical example, this means that an individual can convert a music CD they have purchased into MP3 format (known as ‘format shifting’), which the individual can then load onto their digital music device. Alternatively, they can back-up the MP3 format music by copying it onto a cloud-based storage service such as Google Drive, provided they are storing the copied media for their own private, non-commercial use.

Importantly, Section 28B did not allow the purchaser to give the copied media to friends or family or use it for any commercial purpose.

What about copyright holders?

EU law recognises that the private copying exception can cause copyright owners to lose money.

Article 5(2)(b) of the European Copyright Directive provides that where a member state’s legislation includes a copyright exception, that legislation must also provide fair compensation for rights holders.

Many EU member states therefore levy a royalty or charge on blank media or digital devices that facilitate the copying or format shifting of content, such as MP3 players, blank CDs and DVDs, USB memory sticks and portable hard drives. This levy is then shared among rights-holders such as authors, composers and artists to compensate them for lost sales.

UK court quashes copying exception

Earlier this year, representatives from the music industry challenged the British government’s new private copy exception. They argued the new law would result in lost sales for rights-holders and there was no appropriate alternative mechanism in the new legislation to fairly compensate them (as is provided for in other EU member states).

The government counterclaimed that the private copy exception was drafted narrowly in a way that causes minimal damage to rights-holders and that compensation was already ‘built in’ to the pricing of content. Therefore, no fair compensation payment is due.

The music industry’s case against the private copying exception succeeded. In his judgment, British High Court judge Nicholas Green held that the government’s decision to introduce the private copying exception in the absence of a compensation mechanism for rights holders was “unlawful”.

Last week, the UK High Court quashed the new law that introduced the private copying exception and the UK government is now considering the implications of the court rulings and its options.

‘[It would be] useful to re-examine the personal use exception in light of technological change and common usage’

Legislation without levies

In Ireland’s submission to the European Commission’s public consultation on the review of copyright rules, the argument was that it would be “useful to re-examine the personal use exception in light of technological change and common usage”. This illustrates that the Government here may be open to following the UK and introducing a private copying exception in future.

However, Ireland is one of the few EU member states that does not currently impose levies on media. Copyright legislation here does not provide copying exceptions requiring the payment of ‘fair compensation’ and would therefore need to be updated if a levy was introduced.

In addition, Ireland’s submission to the European Commission made it clear that the government does not currently support the use of levies due, in part, to its view that the “interpretation of ‘fair compensation’ by member states who levy charges in relation to the private copying and reprography exceptions is fragmented and not uniformly applied throughout the EU”.

Nevertheless, the experience in the UK shows that courts will be reluctant to uphold laws that conflict with the European Copyright Directive and permit a private copying exception without also including an appropriate mechanism to fairly compensate rights holders.

The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.

Music collection image by AlexZi via Shutterstock

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