Digital content: When will Aussie law catch up?

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In the modern digital age, you can find nearly any TV series or movie almost instantly, and be watching it not long thereafter… as long as you’re happy with a single screen. This is an issue of seeming legal complexity, even though under slightly different circumstances, the law is more solidly on the side of the consumer. When will it catch up?

I was inspired into this line of thinking based on yesterday’s I’ll Take Three post on the Looney Tunes box set that Amazon UK’s selling ludicrously cheap. In case I didn’t make it perfectly clear, by the way, you really should buy it; it’s exceptional value.

Sorry, I got distracted there. But in one sense I didn’t. Peter’s comment on the base of the article (feel free to comment on any article, by the way; I don’t bite) asked when they’d start selling them on USB sticks, and to an extent, he’s got a point. It’s a big box set, and they’re digital files. Then again, a bunch of USB sticks is easily lost, or mixed up, or accidentally wiped; I’m not convinced that USB is the media of the future for what are still digital files.

This is where the legal angle comes in. I’m obliged here to point out here that I didn’t so much fail law school as never sign up for it in the first place. I’m not a lawyer, this is not legal advice. Now read on.

Right now, I can buy that 42 hour box of Looney Tunes cartoons, and enjoy them to my heart’s content, perfectly legally. But I can only do so wherever I’ve got a DVD drive. I can’t watch them on a tablet, or on a smartphone, or on an Ultrabook. No can do — at least legally.

But if the same box set existed in VHS, under Australian law, I could. Yes, the same box set would be the size of a small elephant, and very unwieldy. But no, I’m not talking about hooking up an ancient dusty VHS player (I do still have one, oddly enough) to an Ultrabook or tablet. Instead, I’m talking about format shifting to digital for playback of legally owned content.

Australian law allows for format shifting of all sorts of content. I covered this off for Lifehacker a few months ago, so feel free to go and read my summary there.

The short form of it, though, is that while you can format shift digital contents such as music — so it’s legal to rip a CD to your PC so you can then transfer the music to your smartphone — you can’t do the same thing with digital video files at all.

If they’re analogue — so VHS, Beta or U-Matic — you absolutely can with no fear of legal repercussion at all.

Mmm… U-Matic.

Once again, I’m not a lawyer — but every single Aussie lawyer I’ve ever asked about analogue video shifting agrees with this interpretation.

You may be granted those kinds of format shifting rights by a digital file provider if they’re feeling generous that way, and some do, but usually only within a closed ecosystem, and not at all from DVD in any way.

Now, the reality is that it’s absolute child’s play to format shift DVDs. It’s a doddle, and it’d be a head-in-the-sand position to suggest that this doesn’t happen a lot. Now, where you’re doing that for the sake of piracy, I’ve got to say that I’m opposed, because that kind of approach doesn’t support the future creation of content.

But when you’re doing it with content that you actually do own a viewing licence for? Where the difference between being able to see it or not is the presence of a DVD drive, something that’s rapidly shifting towards obsolescence, given you can buy them for a pittance from supermarkets?

In that context, I reckon the law is quite frankly ridiculous. That kind of format shifting, as long as you’re legitimately buying content, hurts absolutely nobody. It’s not a contentious political act, it’s not “sticking it to the man” by taking things for free.

It’s simply making things more convenient for you to sit back and enjoy the entertainment that you’ve got the perfect (and, what’s more, contractually agreed) rights to watch.

What’s more, it’s pretty close to being common usage, which was the case with the first couple of iPod generations, where it was legal to own an iPod but not (at that time) legal to actually rip CDs to it, even though the software would allow you to do so. Copyright law caught up with and rectified that issue in favour of consumers — but I’m not convinced that digital video will do so all that quickly.

Image: Pete

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