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Did you know that British copyright law dates back to 1709? It’s origins are a Statute with the very snappy title “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of Such Copies, During The Times Therein Mentioned” (Short Title: Copyright Act 1709)

The initial purpose of this Statute was to ensure that people didn’t buy books, then lend them to their friends, and those friends then copying the book. At this time printing was in its infancy and printers were granted licences to print certain texts ~ so if a book was copied the licence holder would loose out on valuable profits.

The effect of the Statute was to make the copyright of the text “tangible property”. Tangible property is property that can be physically “owned” in the same way as a house or a car. Copyright can be transferred to another person and can be left as a gift in a Will.

These copyright terms are, however, limited. This is why books (and, these days, songs) can be described as “out of copyright” and can be reproduced without permission once the term expires. This rule has ruffled the feathers of some of our older entertainers, such as Cliff Richard, because performers of songs benefit for just 50 years from the date of recording, so some of Sir Cliff’s earlier work is already out of copyright!

So, other than aging pop stars getting miffed about lack of royalties on thier old songs this law still seems applicable today. However, where issues arise is the fact that the Statute applies to consumers.

When you buy a music track on CDs, tapes or a DVDs film etc you own the licence to own that material in that format only, and you cannot transfer it. To transfer music from a CD onto an MP3 player, even if you own both the CD and the MP3 player, is illegal.

Which is why Vince Cable has raised proposals for loosening the restrictions placed on consumers, bringing copyright law “into line with the real world”.

When the lawmakers of 1709 were thrashing out the original Act the concept of recorded music and transfer of data was voodoo magic. It isn’t realistic to impose the same rules today that applied to a Victorian gentleman copying out a recently released poem by Keats on scented parchment to give to a lady as a token of affection.

The rules still make sense in terms of copying music that you do not hold the license for – ripping a friend’s CD to your MP3 player,  for example – but the idea that you cannot transfer the format (i.e. from CD tracks to MP3 files) so that you can listen to music which you own a license for on an MP3 player is ludicrous. Similarly, transferring your old VHS cassettes into DVD rather than spending lots of money replacing your whole collection.

This change in the law represents a landmark event in UK law, which will have significant implications on the way that we transfer and store data, share files and will open up enormous possibilities in terms of online working. One proposed idea is that companies like Google and Amazon will be able to offer storage of data “in the cloud” so it will be possible to have your entire music and book collection in virtual online storage, so it will be possible to have your life with you wherever you go, which many consider essential in today’s online world.

The problems associated with file sharing are already out there and abundant – despite online channels such as YouTube cracking down on illegal file sharing new versions will pop up as soon as the old ones are taken down, so license holders had to work with this issue to make profits.

This led to copyright owners putting up “official” videos on YouTube, and music streaming sites like Spotify. The content remains free as advertising revenues ensure profitability or, for a small subscription fee, users can listen without adverts and, in return, the consumer benefits from better quality music and videos and safer internet use, as illegal sites often expose the user to viruses.

So, whilst the problems of illegal copying and file sharing will never go away, this proposed change will allow license holders to compete and profit, and will allow consumers to get round the very outdated and archaic problem of not legally being able to transfer their music from a CD to an MP3 player ~ a problem certainly not envisaged in 1709!