Copyright down under

Good news from Australia – the Australian government will soon legalize time and media-shifting of copyrighted materials for personal use. So it will become legal for Australians to make MP3s from their CDs, and to use their VCRs to record tv programming for later viewing.

The article is on (thanks Slashdot :)) – and it contains a few disturbing statements. Take this for example:

But yet to be decided is whether a levy will be slapped on the store price of blank CDs and MP3 players, such as iPods, to compensate artists for the revenue they stand to lose under the new laws.

Elsewhere, the article states that – obviously – millions of Australians are using their VCRs for time-shifting, and that the 100,000 iPod owners in Australia have converted their CD collections to MP3s. Why, then, would this law that simply legalizes an existing practice, nothing more, nothing less, make the artists ‘loose’ any new revenue? Why would these artists require additional compensation?

The second problematic statement is a direct quote from the Australian Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock:

“We should not treat everyday Australians who want to use technology to enjoy copyright material they have obtained legally as infringers where this does not cause harm to our copyright industries.”

In other words – it’s ok if our citizens do things as long as it doesn’t cause harm to our copyright industries. Now; I don’t know anything about the legal basis for copyright law in Australia, but in the UK where copyright was first put into law the idea was a balance between the rights of the public and the rights of the author of a work. It was explicitly recognized that the author could not have created their work without relying on the support from and input of the community they lived in, and therefore, only a temporary monopoly on their work was granted to them, long enough to recover their costs and make a living for a resonable period of time. Initially, this term was 14 years, which could be renewed once, for a maximum total term of 28 years.

That’s quite different from Mr. Ruddock’s quote. Elsewhere, the article paraphrases him as saying there should be a balance between the interests of users and the rights of the copyright holders, which makes me believe that the legal foundation for Australian copyright laws is probably quite similar to the one in the UK.

In my view, though, the quote is symptomatic for the current copyright imbalance. It shows how Mr. Ruddock thinks about copyright law as a right that needs to be defended rather than a a temporary granting of more or less exclusive control over content by the public to an author. The industry has rights, and only when there is no monetary loss for the industry, the people can use copyrighted material as they see fit.

The people who make the laws and the ones who enforce them do not have an true appreciation for the original idea of balance behind copyright law. That’s why we currently have life + 75 years as the copyright term.

I’m guessing that’s why there are so many bad movies out there – this kind of climate where everything is copyrighted, everything needs to be checked, rights need to be cleared, is not exactly condusive for true artistic expression!

Thank God for Creative Commons.

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