Entertainment

Format Shifting 101: What Are Your Legal Rights In Australia?

Can you copy your own DVDs for personal use? What about books, CDs, or computer games? It’s one of those fields in which there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation based on old law, overseas law or a misunderstanding of the law. Here’s what you actually need to know.

Image: ToastyKen

When the iPod first launched in Australia, it was, legally speaking, a curious device, if only because its primary function (the playback of music) was one that most buyers of the device were doing in absolute ignorance of the law. At the time, Australian copyright law expressly forbade the format shifting of audio content for playback on other devices. That didn’t stop the iPod from becoming a massive success in Australia, but since then changes to the copyright act have made it legal to format shift your content under specific circumstances. It’s a terribly frequent Ask Lifehacker question though: What are you allowed to do, and what is forbidden?

Note: I’m not a lawyer, and for the purposes of more in-depth legal advice, I’d suggest you contact one. While the law in this area seems fairly clear in Australia when you actually investigate it, you are responsible for your own actions.

What You’re Allowed To Do

  • Format shift books, newspapers, periodicals (i.e magazines) and photos
    This should only be for your own private and domestic use. Technically this should be a single copy, however; if you format shifted a book — and the law suggests you’d have to scan it yourself to do so — you could only do so once within the bounds of copyright law.

  • Format shift sound recordings
    Again, this should be for private and domestic use, as well as “space shifting” — for example, copying a CD to an MP3 player for when you’re out jogging.

  • Time shift radio and TV for viewing at a later date
    This is a single-use (that is, one viewing) rule with rather rubbery timing provisions. You’re most certainly not allowed to keep a long-term library of radio or TV programs.

  • Format shift analogue video
    Still have a VHS copy of Cliffhanger? You can create a digital copy of it entirely legally, if you must.

  • Share those single copies (or show/present them) to members of your household or family
    But not externally to others — “broadcasting” in other words.

  • Make a backup copy of a computer program
    This should be for use in place of the original copy if it is lost or destroyed — but this isn’t automatic, and can be very complex, as I’ve outlined below.

  • Do whatever the licence provisions of a “digital” service allows you to do.
    iTunes Music, for example, allows you to burn a copy to CD under its terms and conditions; that’s perfectly legal as (essentially) the copyright holder is granting you permission to do so. The same applies to any digitally delivered service; when you sign up to the contract to use the service, you’re bound by the terms of that contract and the rights it grants you. This is especially important in terms of software, where often you are not “buying” a product, but acquiring a “licence”.

What You’re Not Allowed To Do

  • Rip DVDs or Blu-ray discs
    DVDs are already a digital format, and, as such, the current provisions of copyright as they relate to format shifting don’t apply except in very specific circumstances; there are research provisions that may allow copying, as well as special cases for those with disabilities. Still, as the law stands, you’re not permitted to rip DVDs that you own; the format shifting provision is quite explicit in dealing with “videotape” for the purposes of format shifting. (Some people erroneously assume that you can copy DVDs if they don’t have copy protection, but that’s not actually the case.)

  • Download Content you “already own”
    The format shifting provisions are fairly explicit about this; you’re allowed to format shift, but only from your own copy. Grabbing a copy from an online source isn’t, legally speaking, permitted.

  • Make “Backup Copies” Of Games
    This is (from a layman’s perspective) a slightly odd legal corridor; essentially speaking, you are allowed to make a backup copy of a computer program, but (unless the license says otherwise), that only covers the software aspect, and not other elements such as artwork, music or video contained within.

  • Circumvent copy protection
    This relates more to provisions of the Fair Trade Agreement with the US and its effects on Australian law (although that’s under review). If a copyright holder puts in some kind of technological protection method (no matter how flimsy), then you’re not legally permitted to make a copy of that content, even if copyright law would otherwise permit you to do so. Interestingly, the region protection on DVDs doesn’t count as a protection method as far as the law is concerned, although that’s somewhat moot given that you’re not permitted to rip DVDs anyway.

  • Keep infringing copies if you no longer own the original.
    You can’t buy a book, scan a copy and then head down to the second-hand bookstore, in other words.

That’s the current legal framework, but it should be noted that, as with the original iPod and its technically-illegal status, the reality of what happens is quite different. Ripping DVDs is, at a technical level, ridiculously easy; Australians regularly flout copyright law by downloading music, movies and games; and it’s hard to find a single case of individual infringement actually being prosecuted in Australia. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just that it hasn’t happened yet.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


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