Too many wrongs mar copyright law

Rupert Goodwins: The EU has said the UK must apply new rules for digital copyright - but a bad law is made worse in the process. Hurry, and you can help.

Summertime, and the living is easy. Everyone's gone on holiday, especially everyone associated with the business of technology -- after the past twelve months, the need to switch off and read bad novels instead of worse spreadsheets is overwhelming. Even in our office, net news nexus of the nine planets, people talk more of the Cornish coast than processor cores. It's quiet. Too quiet. If somebody wanted to slip something past us, now would be a jolly good time.

And with tedious inevitability, here's that something. Thanks to Need To Know (www.ntk.net) and the untiring vigilance of the Stand Net activists, yet another incoming asteroid of badly phrased and darkly worrying legislation has pinged up on the radar. And you -- yes, you -- have just two months to save the world: the consultation period is more than a third done by now, due to it being started at the height of the silly season.

The cosmic cracker this time is the EU Copyright Directive. Like the American DMCA, it exists to stop people from taking digital media content, making perfect copies and distributing the results. Like the American DMCA, it makes breaking cryptographic systems a crime. It also has exceptions, designed to let people make fair use of the stuff they've bought for reasonable purposes that don't economically damage the copyright holders.

If you're not exactly clear what an EU Directive is, then you're probably among some sixty million other people in the UK who wouldn't know one from a tap-dancing pig. At heart, they're instructions to the EU's member states to enact or amend laws to some common standard: how the states make those changes is up to them, but make them they must or they've broken the rules. In the UK, that means that the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 will be fiddled with until it fits the bill -- and this is where the real problems start.

The Directive says that if you break -- or publish the details of how to break -- a system designed to protect copyright content, you are a bad person and will go to jail. This applies to academics working in cryptography, for whom publishing a paper detailing flaws in a system will be a criminal and civil offence. Although the Directive says that research shouldn't be affected, it does nothing to make sure this is so. There should be an official get-out clause, otherwise research will be severely hindered -- ironically, making cryptographic systems weaker through lack of peer analysis.

The Directive says that devices that circumvent copy protection will be illegal to sell and own. Recording studios rely on such devices to make, manipulate and copy the music they make: there's no exemption for them. The Directive says that it is illegal to copy protected material in general, but there are exemptions for school teachers, broadcasters, scientific researchers and so on. All well and good, but the proposed UK enactment of this says that for each exemption, a request to the Secretary of State must be made. In writing. Every time. Which seems a bit steep if you're just putting together a tape for Thursday's music class, or making a playlist of MP3s for tonight's drivetime show on Radio Yokel. The Secretary's going to be getting an awful lot of mail.

All of the above are examples of what might be most kindly thought of as bureaucratic ineptitude, a collection of oversights and fuzzy thinking. OK, if they're not fixed you can go to prison for no good reason, but laws are like that. It gets scarier when you realise what existing, basic rights will be taken away en passant and without comment.

Take the right to create software compatible with someone else's. At the moment, the right to do this is explicit -- the CDPA says you can reverse engineer other people's code to help. But if that code includes protection mechanisms, it's now explicitly illegal. If you have your data in one company's software and you want to read it from another, that may no longer be possible -- and if the first company is keen on annual licence fees, then you may end up having to pay time and again just to keep access to your own data.

Then there's copyright itself. As it stands, after some time the copyright on a piece expires and it enters the public domain. But if the work is protected by some technical mechanism, then there's no limit to the time that mechanism can be in operation -- effectively sealing the work away forever. It would be illegal to try and extract the -- by now public domain -- work, even though this removal of protection is at the heart of almost all intellectual property law.

By any measure, this is a bad piece of legislation. I make no apologies in directing you to Stand's excellent page on the matter and insisting to the point of swivel-eyed madness that you read it and act on it. As a pleasant side effect, you'll also learn how the EU gets laws you don't like into your life, and how little a say you have in the matter -- and I say this as a staunch Europhile who thinks the pound should go the way of the shilling. There may be a cure for the summertime blues, but we'll have to work at it.

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