The copyright debate should cover our rights, not just our responsibilities.
As laughable as it sounds, last week the UK finally legalised copying music CDs for personal use – ripping or "format-shifting" discs to your computer so you can listen to albums on your portable device of choice. The change comes into effect in October but of course Brits have been ripping their music for more than a decade, just like everyone else, using software such as Apple's iTunes. It just took a very long time for the law to catch up with the technology.
Australians shouldn't laugh too hard, because at the same time last week the UK also made it legal to rip your DVD and Blu-ray movies to your computer. Now Brits can make backups of expensive movie discs in case they get scratched, plus they can copy their films to computers, smartphones and tablets so they can watch them on the go.
What's particularly interesting is that new UK laws don't specifically mention DVDs. The laws don't actually mention any technologies, they just state the changes "will affect how you can use content like books, music, films and photographs".
This is what Australia needs; forward-looking, technology-agnostic copyright laws which focus on what you're trying to do rather than the specific content and technologies you're dealing with. Right now if you own the same movie on VHS tape and DVD, you can make a backup of the tape but not the disc. We need copyright laws which are future-proof, so we don't need to rewrite them every time a new technology comes along.
Ripping your movies is still against the law in Australia, even though movies and music are both simply ones and zeros on a shiny disc. Back in 2007 when Australian law finally embraced CD ripping, then Attorney-General Philip Ruddock put DVD ripping in the too hard basket but promised it would be considered in the next copyright review – which is underway now.
Don't be too envious of the new UK laws, because there's one slight catch with its new-found freedoms. Brits are allowed to copy DVDs and Blu-rays, but they're not allowed to break the copyright protection on the disc. Which of course means they can't exercise their legal right to copy the disc. It's unlikely that the government will be brave enough to demand that Hollywood strip copyright protection from discs sold in the UK. Or that Hollywood would comply if they did ask. So the new copyright laws are a joke.
Unfortunately we have a similar mess in Australia, because the US Free Trade Agreement saw us inherit some of the more draconian sections of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Australian law forbids circumventing Digital Rights Management, such as the encryption used on DVDs and Blu-rays. So even if we were permitted to copy movies we've purchased, we're not permitted to bypass the encryption, which is necessary in order to copy the movie. It's a Catch 22 which a parliamentary report on the issue describes as a "lamentable and inexcusable flaw... that verges on absurdity".
Of course the government is happy to ignore parliamentary reports which put the rights of Australians before the interests of big business. The IT pricing inquiry recommended that Australians be permitted to bypass "technological protection measures" in order to sidestep region-coding on DVDs. The inquiry also suggested a ban on the geoblocking which keeps us out of foreign services like Netflix. The point of these two recommendations was to remove the artificial barriers created by the movie studios in order to rip off Australians, but the government is yet to do anything about it.
You might argue that free digital downloads such as Digital Copy Plus and UltraViolet negate the need to rip your DVDs, but they don't. When you buy a movie on disc you never quite know what you'll get in terms of a digital copy and whether it will suit your gadgets. We should still be entitled to copy the movie disc to our format of choice, just as we can with music CDs.
Our right to rip DVDs didn't go in the too hard basket during the last copyright review because it's technically difficult. Software like Handbrake and AnyDVD can rip your DVDs and Blu-rays just as easily as iTunes and Windows Media Player can rip your music CDs. We were denied the right to format-shift our movies because the powerful movie studios had the ear of the government and demanded special treatment. The current copyright debate shows that nothing has changed, with the government more interested in punishing wrongdoers and protecting old-world business models than actually demanding a better deal for Australian movie lovers.
Letting Australians rip the discs they already own will have zero impact on piracy, it simply acknowledges that honest people are entitled to some rights when it comes to content they've paid for. Unfortunately our right to format-shift DVDs is once again likely to end up in the too hard basket, because Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull only pay lip service to our rights as consumers.
Even if Australian copyright laws do change, it's meaningless because the government has already signed away our rights as part of the US free trade agreement. When it comes to copyright and format-shifting, it seems Australian consumers only have the right to remain silent.
Read more posts from Adam Turner's Gadgets on the Go blog.