21 January, 2004: Shifting stands

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Others may be interested to discover that BBC Radio 7 is broadcasting (at 0630h, rather irritatingly) old episodes of Yes, Minister. As far as I can tell, they've just taken the soundtracks from the TV shows and broadcast them over the radio, which works pretty well, since the original programme had very few sets and it's easy enough to visualise the actors and their surroundings.

Unfortunately, the BBC don't offer their RealPlayer `listen again' service for Radio 7 yet, so the only way to listen to this at a sane time of day is to record it and time-shift.

Time-shifting is, of course, one of the few exceptions allowed under copyright law for people in the UK. (Really dodgy link coming up....) One of the others is to allow a copyright work to be imported into the UK for private use. In other cases, you're not allowed to, because copyright works are `licenced' for sale in certain countries; rather than leaving this `licencing' up to contract law, it has been written in to copyright law, in the form of s.22 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988:

(22) The copyright in a work is infringed by a person who, without the licence of the copyright owner, imports into the United Kingdom, otherwise than for his private and domestic use, an article which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe is, an infringing copy of the work.

and by part of s.27, which defines an article to be `infringing' if, (emphasis mine)

(a) it has been or is proposed to be imported into the United Kingdom, and

(b) its making in the United Kingdom would have constituted an infringement of the copyright in the work in question, or a breach of an exclusive licence agreement relating to that work.

Basically what this means is that if you buy some CDs abroad and return to the UK with them, you don't have to destroy them to avoid an action for copyright infringement; but you can't set up a business which buys CDs abroad -- where they're often much cheaper, since record companies charge what the market will bear, which is usually rather less than the retail price in Britain -- and sell them here, because that, rather than being a victory for globalisation resulting from the exchange of goods for mutual advantage, would be an altogether more shocking infringement of copyright.

The latest outfit to fall foul of this particular bit of corporate welfare legislation is on-line retailer CD Wow, a company which buys CDs wherever they're cheap and sells them through their web site, posting them to their customers around the world (chiefly in the UK). Presumably they were hoping to shelter behind s.22 by arguing that posting a CD to someone is a private import; in any case, those ever-cheerful bastards at the British Phonographic Industry, noticing an opportunity to rip off the public which was going unexploited, naturally decided to sue CD Wow. In the event, threats were enough; CD Wow have now caved in to their threats, on the basis that they are,

``a small business'' and it would be financially ``imprudent'' for them to try and take the case to the Court of Appeal or the European Court.

and have `agreed' to put their prices up by 2 per album. (They have, according to the BBC, one million `users' per month; how this translates to sales, I don't know.) The BPI have released a rather smug statement crowing about their `victory'; the BBC rather archly comments that,

The BPI would not comment on the impact the settlement would have on UK consumers who had been using CD-Wow!

-- presumably because the `impact' of the settlement on consumers will be obvious even to the dolts at the British Phonographic Industry.

Now (and with the obvious caveat that making infringing copies of copyright works is Bad and Wrong) it's fairly obvious that this will increase `piracy'. After all, customers presumably buy from CD Wow because to do so is cheaper than to buy from UK retailers. That's the same reason that they download music from the internet (or copy it off their friends) rather than buying it here. The BPI have acted to decrease the difference between CD Wow's prices and inflated UK prices; but they haven't done anything to bring UK prices closer to the cost of downloaded `pirated' material. So, expect downloads of music from the internet here to rise.

The record companies' response to this is to threaten lawsuits. Leaving aside the argument that it's never wise for an industry to sue its own customers, it's nice to see that this sort of bluster hasn't made much difference to rates of music downloading in the United States; after an initial fall when the Recording Industry Ass. of America starting suing, rates of music downloading have started to rise again.

I should repeat that downloading infringing copies of music is Bad and Wrong. But the record industry isn't going to stop it unless it's prepared to confront it as an economic problem to be solved by changing pricing, rather than a legal one to be solved in the courts.


Copyright (c) 2004 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.