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Private Use

Last month, AG Cruz-Villlalon published his opinion in the case about the Dutch thuiskopieerheffing, the levy on writable media for the purposes of compensating copyrights holders for legal and illegal private use copying. While the opinion is probably correct, I think there is something very very wrong with it. (The opinion isn’t currently available in English, so I will quote from the French instead. For the reader’s convenience, the Dutch version is here.)

First off, the ironic conclusion of the AG’s opinion is that the levy, whose primary purpose is to compensate the victims of illegal downloading, is deemed contrary to EU law because it promotes “La banalisation du téléchargement descendant d’œuvres ou d’objets protégés” (par. 75). The AG advocates a strict interpretation of the copyrights directive 2001/29 for the benefit of copyrights holders, the result of which that copyrights holders are made worse off.

But that is not my objection today. My problem is with the structure of the directive: private use copying is described as an exception to the right of the copyright holder, and not even a mandatory exception. Art. 5(2)(b) of the Directive says:

Member States may provide for exceptions or limitations to the reproduction right provided for in Article 2 in the following cases: (…) (b) in respect of reproductions on any medium made by a natural person for private use and for ends that are neither directly nor indirectly commercial, on condition that the rightholders receive fair compensation which takes account of the application or non-application of technological measures referred to in Article 6 to the work or subject-matter concerned;

(emphasis added)

Given this legal framework, the AG is probably correct that this exception, being an exception, has to be interpreted narrowly:

32. D’une part, ledit article 5, paragraphe 2, sous b), ne prévoirait pas une telle possibilité et, dans la mesure où elle constitue une exception au droit exclusif de reproduction garanti à l’article 2 de la directive 2001/29, elle doit faire l’objet d’une interprétation stricte, en conjonction avec l’article 5, paragraphe 5, de cette directive.

Although I wouldn’t have gone so far as to applaud it as striking an appropriate balance:

33. D’autre part, cette interprétation restrictive correspondrait à la finalité de la directive 2001/29, la solution contraire étant susceptible de rompre le juste équilibre qui doit être maintenu entre les divers droits et intérêts en présence. La rémunération équitable prévue à cette disposition n’aurait vocation à compenser que le préjudice subi pour les titulaires de droits «en conséquence de l’introduction» de l’exception de copie privée et non le préjudice résultant pour ces derniers des reproductions réalisées à partir de sources illicites ni, a fortiori, le préjudice résultant de la diffusion en amont de copies illicites de leurs œuvres.

On the contrary, I think this framework gets the fundamental principle wrong. I’m no Pirate Party enthusiast, but I think that when I’m buying a song or a movie, I’m buying a song or a movie, not a CD or a DVD. In fact, I may buy the work without any particular carrier at all. Once I buy it, I would consider myself free to copy it from one medium to another to my heart’s content. The notion that I would be infringing a copyright if I transferred a legally downloaded song – bought and paid for – to my iPod or burned it onto a CD is ridiculous. (I assume the standard conditions of iTunes &c take care of this, but my point is that they shouldn’t have to.)

The notion that private use copying is presumptively copyright-infringing is, quite frankly, antedeluvian.

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