News & Press

UK copyright law ‘abjectly failing’ consumers according to international survey

Published: 19 April 2011

As a new international survey1 rates UK copyright law the third worst in the world, Consumer Focus and the Open Rights Group are calling for outdated UK copyright law to be made fair for consumers and help drive economic growth.  The consequences of the failure to update copyright law are becoming ever more apparent and act as a barrier to UK-based technology companies that meet consumer demand for innovative products.

The survey looks at how copyright laws in 26 countries balance the interests of copyright owners with those of consumers. The UK, along with Thailand, Chile, Brazil and Belarus are at the bottom of the league with the least consumer-friendly copyright laws.  Moldova, the United States, India, Lebanon and New Zealand are leading the way.    

Among the findings released today by Consumers International2, the UK received an F-rating for consumer freedom to access and use copyrighted materials in the home. The report assigns an F-rating ‘if the country abjectly fails to observe those interests.’ 

These are timely findings as next month Professor Ian Hargreaves is due to publish an independent review on how copyright law should be updated for the digital age3.  It is a vital opportunity to update UK copyright law to support both economic growth and fair treatment for consumers.  With the Open Rights Group, Consumer Focus is calling on the review to use the opportunity to buck an anti-consumer trend which today’s report describes as ‘the insidious shift in the underlying attitudes of policy makers’ regarding the balance between copyright owners and consumers 

UK copyright law has been completely outstripped by technological developments, with some absurd consequences for consumers. Consumers are technically breaking the law when they: 

  • copy CDs or DVDs they have already bought onto an iPod, computer or other devices, known as format-shifting
  • back-up music, MP3s and e-books
  • use legally purchased hardware and software specifically designed for activities that are illegal, for example, buying a digital music player to format-shift their CD collection for convenient listening

Consumer Focus and the Open Rights Group are calling for the Government to introduce ‘fair use’ rights for consumers into UK copyright law. This would allow consumers to copy content they have purchased for their own use, for example, format-shifting and back-up, providing them with legal user rights for activities that cause no economic harm to copyright owners4

Mike O’Connor CBE, Chief Executive of Consumer Focus, said:

‘We need up to date copyright law both to promote economic growth and treat consumers fairly. 

‘We must grasp the opportunity to design copyright law which will help us build the businesses of the future and end the absurd “criminalisation” of activities which most people see as harmless.  Nobody supports large scale copying but ordinary consumers should be allowed “fair use” rights to be able to copy the music, films and e-books they have paid for onto their phones, MP3 players and computers for their own use. 

‘Smart-phones and digital media players are part of our day-to-day lives and it’s high time the law caught up. It is absurd that consumers can’t use digital technology to enjoy what they have bought without finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. 

‘Other countries have shown the way and we should catch up in the interests of consumers and hi-tech growth.’ 

Jim Killock, Executive Director of digital rights campaigners the Open Rights Group, said:

It is crazy that ripping an MP3 from a CD you’ve bought is a breach of copyright law. It’s equally crazy that sampling a second or two of a tune, or satirising it, is a breach of copyright. Rules this rigid are suppressing legitimate uses of songs, films and e-books we’ve paid for and bring the entire principle of copyright into disrepute. 

‘Other countries do incredibly well by having flexible “fair use” rights while fully protecting copyright. Britain should try to be fair as well.’
It is not clear what consumers can and cannot do with the copyrighted content they have bought. Business innovators also face legal uncertainty. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently upheld a complaint against the advertisement of a digital music player. By telling consumers that they can format-shift their CD collections for convenient listening, the company was found to have ‘incited consumers to break the law’5


Notes to editors: 

  • For more information, or to place an interview bid with either Consumer Focus or the Open Rights Group, please call the Consumer Focus media team on 020 7799 8004.  
  1. The IP Watchlist ranks countries’ copyright laws and enforcement practices worldwide on consumer access to educational, cultural and scientific knowledge. This year the IP Watchlist ranked 26 countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. The five best rated countries overall were Moldova, the Unites States, India, Lebanon and New Zealand. In contrast to the UK, these countries score highly on providing home users with fair use rights. France and Canada, which also scored highly on home use, were ranked 7th and 8th overall.To view the full survey visit To view the full UK country report visit
  2. Consumers International is the world federation of consumer groups that, working together with its members, serves as the only independent and authoritative global voice for consumers
  3. In November last year the Prime Minister announced the Independent Review of IP and Growth. Led by Prof Ian Hargreaves the review seeks to remove barriers to economic growth and innovation, and update UK copyright law for the digital age. The Government has asked Prof Hargreaves to assess the case for ‘fair use’ rights in copyright law. Prof Hargreaves is expected to announce his recommendations in early May.
  4. Countries which provide consumers with fair use rights to copy music, film and e-books they have bought for their own use, such as the US, New Zealand, France and Canada, score highly in the survey. Such an exception would not legalise peer-to-peer filesharing as consumers would not be allowed to distribute copies they have made for their own use to others. Such a non-commercial use exception would protect copyright owners’ exclusive rights and provide legal certainty for UK based technology companies.
    In November last year Consumer Focus published a literature review of the existing economic evidence on fair use rights. The review found that there is no existing evidence to support the argument that activities such as format-shifting, where consumers copy their CDs onto an iPod or computer, causes copyright owners to lose money.
  5. In March 2011 the ASA upheld a complaint against 3GA Ltd, a Cambridge based technology SME founded by Martin Brennan, finding that the company had encouraged consumers to use the Brennan JB7 HiFi to copy music CDs, vinyl and cassettes and that, therefore, ‘it incited consumers to break the law.’ The ASA held that future advertisements for such products must ‘prominently state that it was unlawful to copy material without the permission of the copyright owner.’ To view the full ASA decision visit: More information on the Brennan JB7 can be found at

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