Maplin drops copying devices

Under pressure from the European Union Copyright Directive, the electronics chain has discontinued three lines of devices that could be used to circumvent copyright protections

Maplin Electronics, a retailer with 80 shops across the UK, has moved to discontinue the sale of three devices capable of circumventing Macrovision copy protection technology, the company said last week.

Maplin said the move was a response to the controversial European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD), a far-reaching modification of European anti-piracy law implemented in the UK last October. It is the first time a major UK company has publicised such a move.

Maplin said it would destroy its entire stock of "video enhancers", devices used in tape-to-tape, broadcast-to-tape or tape-to-PC copying. The devices are touted as improving picture quality, but also filter out the pulses Macrovision technology inserts into picture signals. These pulses are not visible on television sets, but are designed to confuse recording devices. Macrovision copy-protection is also built into DVD players.

"We have discontinued these items following the change in the legislation, and out of respect for the law," said Maplin commercial director David O'Reilly in a statement.

Martin Brooker, Macrovision's European director of sales, said Macrovision would work with other retailers to further restrict the availability of such devices, as part of an ongoing enforcement programme.

Maplin had previously made efforts to warn customers of the potentially illegal nature of the video enhancers. A label on the product cautioned that the devices should not be used for unauthorised duplication of copyrighted material, unless the copy qualified under "fair use" provisions of the law.

The EUCD is intended to aid copyright holders in cracking down on counterfeiting and piracy, but organisations such as UK think tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) argue that it is likely to tighten the grip of large companies on consumers, because of the way it is being implemented across the European Union.

In a recent analysis of the EUCD, FIPR found that most countries were failing to protect researchers, business competition and consumers in their implementations of the directive, while giving full force to measures that criminalise the circumvention of copyright controls.

Critics argue that such measures will be used by corporate interests to block competition for such products as printer cartridges and garage-door openers -- two cases that have already surfaced under the DMCA in the US.

FIPR director Ian Brown said that although the UK law compares favourably with the implementations in some other European states, it did not appear that consumer-rights groups' criticisms had been taken into account. "I don't think there has been much change since the first draft," he said.

The UK's music industry also lobbied against the law -- but on the grounds that it was too lenient, and would drive the music industry out of the country.

A survey commissioned by intellectual property law firm Bristows in November found that the vast majority of UK businesses did not understand EUCD-imposed copyright obligations covering Web sites, intranets and even photocopies.