Copyright out of their minds

The Man just isn’t getting the whole new digital era thing, is he? Two separate articles on the SMH website today have catalogued how governments and copyright owners have failed to adapt to the inevitable, incontrovertible move towards digital content. Universal Music is suing MySpace for, essentially, promoting its artists. And the new laws that will finally allow personal use of digital content are already out of date.

The Attorney-General’s Department has spent years trying to bring our copyright law up to date, but as Asher Moses’ article today points out, it’s already fatally flawed. You are allowed to make one copy for personal use. But nearly everyone who uses digital media automatically makes two.

Let’s start from the proposition that iPods are legal, shall we? Virtually everyone has one, it seems, and if there was a referendum on changing the law, there’d be no shortage of white earphone-toting trendies to pass it overwhelmingly.

Hell, even Dick Cheney famously has one, having hogged the powerpoint on Air Force Two to recharge it. Since he has essentially determined our nation’s approach to warfare since we signed up for that foolhardy War on Terror thing, we can assume it’s legal, can’t we?

Or what about our other, lesser Head of State, the Queen? She got one from her grandchildren. And the conspiracy goes even higher. The self-appointed President of the World, Bono, even has his own type of iPod – with his signature ostentatiously engraved on the back.

But no-one is above the law. Not even Bono. So next time he comes by to give our leaders the benefit of his wisdom, and maybe play a gig or two in the odd stadium into the bargain, he should be arrested and slapped with a $65,000 fine. Unless you think Bono’s so arrogant he only has U2 tracks on his iPod. Heck, give him five years in jail as well. He can become the Nelson Mandela of intellectual property law, and we won’t have to see those awful photos of his sunglasses for half a decade.

The issue is that the new law only allows you to make one “main copy” of a copyrighted work. You can make other, temporary copies, but only for a short time. And if you rip a CD you own onto an iPod – the most unambiguously legal way there is to use it, since you’ve already shelled out $30 for the disc – it makes two copies, one on the player and one on the computer.

But most of us go further than this. I’ve taken to using those iTunes copies to burn other copies of CDs in my car, for example, after it got broken into repeatedly and I had many originals swiped. But don’t worry about the car thieves – I’m the criminal in that scenario, obviously.

It’s baffling that the starting point of the new laws wasn’t to legalise a device that everyone uses and agrees should be legal – at least insofar as ripping your own CDs is concerned. And the fact that these are strict liability offences – where you don’t even have to know you’re breaking the law – makes the new Copyright Act even dodgier. Although it may mean we can prosecute their author, Phillip Ruddock, for his theft of Count Dracula’s skincare formulation.

(OK, that was a terrible joke. C’mon, I just got back from a week’s holiday. And still, I challenge you to prove that Ruddock is not a card-carrying member of the undead. I for one have no trouble believing he sleeps in a coffin.)

Then there’s Universal’s prosecution of MySpace. This is, in short, incredibly dumb. Sure, okay, it’s theoretically possible for copyrighted songs to be uploaded to it. But here’s the thing – they can’t be copied. You can put them in your profile, sure, but there’s no way to get them off MySpace, and onto, say, an iPod. at least, not without losing plenty of quality.

And that’s why virtually every band these days has a MySpace page where they post their music for the kids to put on their profiles. Because it means the kids are promoting their music for them. Even U2, a Universal artist, has its own MySpace page where the band posts its songs, videos and also their upcoming gigs, news, that kind of things. Their song ‘Sometimes you can’t make it on your own’ has been listened to 1.6 million times – approximately 1.59 million times more than it deserved. No-one’s going to log into MySpace every time they want to hear a U2 song, so this makes the job of selling U2’s CDs easier. Thereby saving Universal millions in promotional dollars. Thereby, if it isn’t clear enough, benefiting Universal’s all-important shareholders.

But no. Universal would rather piss off the fans of its artists by preventing the fans from promoting the songs they love. Come on, guys. Sure, it’s dodgy for people to download free U2 albums (although I tend to get the impression they’ve got enough money already). But when MySpace’s technology is designed to prevent downloading of songs, who’s the victim here?

Sadly, it certainly isn’t Bono.

Dominic Knight

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