March 31, 2023

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Britain Takes New Tack in Piracy Fight

PARIS — Britain plans to legalize something that many of its citizens have been doing already, perhaps unaware that they were breaking the law: copying music or movies from compact discs or DVDs onto other storage devices, like iPods.

The government said Wednesday that it planned to legalize so-called format-shifting as part of a broad overhaul of the country’s copyright laws aimed at bringing them up to speed with digital technology and the fight against piracy. Across much of the rest of Europe, format-shifting has long been permitted.

“We can’t carry on saying that businesses should embrace technology but then not allow consumers to use everyday technology to play works they’ve paid for,” said Vince Cable, the business secretary.

Last year, Britain’s previous government, controlled by the Labour Party, pushed through anti-piracy legislation only days before national elections. In the voting, Labour lost power to the Conservatives, who now govern in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, of which Mr. Cable is a member.

In its proposal Wednesday, the government stuck with some of the previously approved plans, but backed away from one main provision: a proposal to introduce a streamlined procedure for blocking access to Web sites that host copyright-infringing music, movies or other material.

A report by Ofcom, the British media regulator, had concluded that site blocking would raise too many complications. Similar proposals have also languished in the U.S. Congress.

While holders of copyrights have been pushing for such measures, saying they could stop piracy at the source, opponents say they are a potential threat to free speech. Rights owners did receive a boost last week when the High Court in London ruled that BT, an Internet service provider, must cut off links to a site called Newzbin2, saying BT was aware that it was being used to pirate movies and other copyrighted material.

While copyright owners have welcomed the court ruling, they say it is expensive and time-consuming to pursue legal action; in the meantime, pirate sites can easily move around to evade enforcement, and new ones are always springing up.

The government did not rule out the possibility of reintroducing legislation to create a fast-track site-blocking system. Geoff Taylor, chief executive of a British music industry lobby group, BPI, urged officials to move quickly.

“A failure to do so will see some of this country’s world-leading industries irreparably damaged on this government’s watch,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Cable said the government would press ahead with plans to crack down on individual file-sharers by implementing a system under which hard-core offenders could face the suspension of their Internet access, if they ignored repeated warnings. A similar enforcement mechanism was recently introduced in France.

In a new wrinkle, the government said accused violators of the anti-piracy laws would be charged £20, or about $33, if they wanted to appeal. The fee, intended to discourage frivolous claims that could overwhelm the authorities, would be refunded if the person were cleared.

While taking action against file-sharing, the government is offering a quid pro quo by moving to liberalize the rules on personal copying. Surveys have shown that most Britons were either unaware that format shifting was illegal or that they flouted the prohibition anyway.

“If you just tell people, ‘you can’t copy this CD that you bought, for personal use,’ they’re never going to respect you when you tell them it’s wrong to copy for others,” said Simon Levine, an intellectual property lawyer at the firm of DLA Piper in London.

In the United States, copying for personal use has generally been permitted under “fair use” provisions of copyright law.

Across much of Continental Europe, private copying of music is legal, with governments levying taxes on the sale of blank CDs or other storage devices, using the proceeds to compensate content creators. No such levy was proposed in Britain — to the annoyance of the Musicians’ Union.

“We are not opposed to the introduction of an exception for format shifting, as long as a system of fair compensation for rights holders is brought in alongside it,” John F. Smith, general secretary of the union, said in a statement.

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