No beating the copyright rap

 

From today, illegally downloading music could lead to a jail term. But the silence about the new EU laws is deafening, reports Brian Boyd

Last month a 66-year-old grandmother was issued with a lawsuit by the Recording Industry of America (RIAA). Sarah Seabury Ward was accused of illegally downloading rap records using the Internet - 2,000 songs in total, one of which was called I'm A Thug, by a hip-hop star called Trick Daddy. In her defence, Seabury Ward said she only used the Internet to e-mail her friends and family; she didn't have the software to download music and anyway she wasn't into gangsta rap.

The RIAA withdrew its case "as a gesture of good faith", saying there might have been a case of mistaken identity, but it warned Seabury Ward that it would re-file charges if she tried to download 50 Cent (or the like) from her computer.

Previous to this, the RIAA had successfully sued a 12-year-old girl, Briana LaHara, who had to pay a $2,000 fine for illegally downloading songs. The fact that the multi-billion-dollar industry represented by the RIAA was able to file these PR-unfriendly suits against a 66-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl was made possible by the controversial US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This act was brought into being, ostensibly, to bring copyright laws up to date with advances in new technologies. But its many US opponents say the DMCA goes beyond its initial remit, in that it has been employed by copyright holders to limit competition, restrain free speech and unduly constrain the way people use copyrighted materials.

Today, Ireland and all other EU countries will wake up to a new piece of EU legislation concerning copyrights. Called the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD), the new laws are closely based on the US's DMCA. From today, anyone in an EU country who watches a new film (illegally) on their computer before it reaches the cinemas or who downloads a piece of music (illegally) will face unlimited fines and/or a two-year jail sentence. The silence about this hugely important piece of legislation has been deafening.

Using a computer to download songs, albums, video clips and films to a PC is a hugely popular pastime. Some people use legal services, such as Pressplay or MusicNet to download songs - completely legitimate behaviour. Surveys have shown, though, that the majority of users favour, obviously, free (but illegal) services such as Kazaa. As it stands, anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Internet can download current albums and films for free. The music and film industries were obviously concerned about revenue losses and they combined to lobby powerfully for the introduction of the EUCD.

The music world stands to gain more from the legislation than the film world. It takes hours to download a film for free, but you can have the new Coldplay album on your PC in minutes - if you know where to look. Before the new legislation, the music world was fighting back against illegal downloading (which, it says, costs the record companies millions of euro in lost revenue each year) by trying to "jam" the illegal sites and also adding various "extras" (interviews, unreleased tracks) to the legitimate CD bought in the record shop.

Obviously the EUCD is not just about film and music, but in reality, it is in these areas where the legislation will hit hardest. Already the EUCD has been severely criticised by civil liberties groups who argue that it enables large corporations (film studios, record companies, and so on) to control how consumers use the Internet. It's all very complex, but there are concerns that the mechanisms put into place to control online copyright will allow commercial organisations to gather sensitive personal information about users.

The EUCD is a tortuous read and it will be years before its full legal implications are understood, but one aspect of the directive is already causing huge concern. These days, if you buy a CD album in a record shop, you will find that it plays on your home stereo but not on your PC. People who work a lot on their PCs and want to play their favourite music while doing so find this a major inconvenience. Most people know how to overwrite the copyright protection system contained in CDs so that they will play on PCs. However, this act of overwriting the security is, from today, technically a crime and punishable by law.

Supporters of the EUCD argue that the directive is to be seen as more of a deterrent than a punishment. This, however, does not chime with a statement by a leading UK music industry figure last month. Peter Jamieson, the chairman of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), said that people who used illegal services such as Kazaa will be sued.

"I don't want to sue consumers, but when the legal framework is in place we'll follow due process," he said.Jamieson did emphasise that legal moves would only follow "a major awareness campaign", alerting EU Internet users that illegal downloading of music and films was now a criminal offence.

In more general terms, what the EUCD actually means is that, in future, there will be no such thing as buying a CD, video or DVD to use as we wish; what we will be doing is buying a limited licence to access a work of intellectual copyright under very strict conditions of usage.