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

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?


  • So you can “Make a backup copy of a computer program, should be for use in place of the original copy if it is lost or destroyed” But if you lose it you can’t keep it if you don’t own the original..

    • (not a lawyer) but it appears so; I presume (again, not a lawyer) that there would be a distinction made between “lost” (say, in a fire or something) software and that which you’d disposed of or sold. The legal distinction of ownership appears to be a protection measure for those who have legitimately purchased copyright works, but not those who throw them away or sell them.

  • From this list it seems like we are getting screwed. Especially the one about ripping, My phone doesn’t have a Blu-Ray slot in it funnily enough…

  • Thanks Alex, good article. I find it rather bemusing how much detail the authorities went into when setting rules (going to specifics allowing you format shift video tape), but how outdated the rules have become (not allowing you format shift DVD/Bluray) without any addendum.

  • “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.”

    See, this annoys the hell out of me. The number of times I’ve bought a BluRay that comes with a digital copy, only to find that digital copy refuses to play on my chosen device means that I generally end up just grabbing a version that will actually play off a torrent instead of bothering with the official digital copy that they provided. If they don’t like it then they can **** my ****ing ****.

  • Yeah, like the Free Trade Agreement between us and the U.S. has done anything for Aussie consumers! We still get bent over on pricing and certain manufacturers cutting off grey import channels.

    I say rip and shift all you like. Just don’t setup a bootleggers stall at the local Swap Meet.

  • The time-shifting provision is the telling bit of silliness in the current legislation.

    It was updated from not being allowed to record television and radio programs at all (which was practically impossible to enforce), to being allowed to, but having to destroy the copy after watching it once in private – and strictly speaking, I think, only watched by the person who recorded it. How do they enforce it? Who knows – but if they start choosing too, I suspect the majority of the Australian population will find the housing affordability crisis moot, as they reside on Her Majesty’s leisure.

    Back then, they had blank video tapes and VCRs with a record button. Now, we have PVRs with a “keep” function. What connects the two is stupid (or really, really, really clever).

    • yeah…I never really heard about the people recording shows/movies of TV with a VCR and the impact this had on VHS sales. The again, blank VHS tapes were relatively expensive.

  • So if I got caught (not that I ever would) downloading something illegally online. I can’t run out and buy a copy and say, “i’ve had this for ages, i just wanted a digital copy.”

    • No, (or presumably no), because if you were caught illegally downloading something online, you’d presumably have been caught doing that, and you’re not allowed to. If you got busted with a format shifted copy of music or a VHS and could provide the original (and it was clear that the digital you had was your own conversion) you’d be in the clear, though.

      • You shouldn’t be talking about the current law as the international but “secret” meetings concerning copyright have been running for some time. I suspect that soon Australia will be signatory to a secret treaty and copyright will suddenly be very restrictive with matching extremely punitive laws.

  • I download tv shows (not music/movies) because of various reasons 1). being that I dont want to wait [insert timeframe] to watch my favourite tv shows. 2). I want to watch it on multiple media ie. stream to ps3/phone. Now since I cant do that with legal avenues in Australia I have to resort to illegal methods. I try and balance this by actually purchasing online streaming subscriptions such as netflix/itunes/xbox so that actual money goes to the people who are creating the tv shows that I am watching. Obviously this does not diminish the illegality of what I am doing but It is the fairest thing that I can come up with for both parties. If there was a (Rdio/jbhifinow) service for tv shows in australia which was available on my phone/pc/tv for a nominal fee then I would of course use the service. I use the Rdio music streaming service and I think its fantastic.. use it on my pc and android device, has a very large collection of music and works. I happily part with my money so that 1). I get high quality music 2). Artists/studios get payed 3). its easy. Some people might disagree and thats cool I am well aware of my legal rights in this situation and am making a conscious choice.

  • if you own the original, format shifting to any format that allows you to consume it at your leisure should be allowed for personal viewing. if that involves making a drm scheme that allows this, so be it – i paid my money to watch/read this thing – let me enjoy it the way i want to! selling multiple copies in different formats is a bs moneygrabbing move – the pollies dont want to change it because more profit for the companies (should) mean more tax dollars for the government.
    so voting for the pirate party in the next election.

  • A single license for all the digital formats that it could be used or converted to.
    Eg. A premium License that allows you the the right to use the media on multiple devices in multiple formats.
    My reasoning is that we are paying for the intellectual content not its compression. It seems unjust to have to pay for for the same thing to play it four different ways. I own the BD and I want to watch it on a lesser format, it is still the same content just at a lesser quality. Or supose you can buy a digital license that allows you to acquire all forms of the content at any time from then on. You pay a premium cost but then have premium access to the content you have paid for and hold a license to.


    • this should be the standard – not the ‘premium’. why should i be able to consume as i see fit? i gave you my money for your product already, let me move it around as i need/want to.

      • Thats how I feel about it. I understand paying twice for software thats been ported (rewritten) for different hardware platforms. But audio content? $80 for a physical audiobook with 20 discs and a special case while on eg. iTunes its $80 in digital format. It didn’t ship anywhere, get manufactured nor packaged, why is it $80….license for content? If that is the case, then why can’t I access the digital version when I buy the physical or opt to pay $5 more at the time of purchase to own the rights to acquire it legally. Means I don’t feel the need to just rip it myself later and it might make life easier for non-techy caregivers to adapt to different media types.

  • I know this is an old thread… but I thought I’d post that there is now an option in Australia for people who want to format shift select paper books into ebooks. There’s a free app called BitLit ( that lets you get a free or highly discounted ebook if you own the paperback. The only catch is that you have to write your name into the book and snap a photo using the app to “claim” the ebook.

  • To bypass DVD region coding for playback – you can rip it (playback is not format shifting – you can keep the same format, i.e. burn to DVD).

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