British consumers will be on the wrong side of the law for the first time if they buy overseas DVDs or computer games 'unauthorised' for the UK and play them on their PCs at home.
This is the major implication of a ruling in the High Court yesterday over the sale in the UK of 'mod-chips' for the Sony Playstation.
Channel Technology, the British supplier of Messiah Playstation mod-chips, was found liable under the Copyright and Patents Act 1988, by supplying a way around Sony's copyright protection mechanisms.
Sony last month won an injunction to stop the company from selling or marketing PS mod-chips. While not disputing the facts, Channel Technology argued that the mod-chip "was not 'specifically' designed to circumvent the copy-protection mechanism of the PS2 console, but also dealt with defeating the region control aspect of the same protection, and thus allowed arguably legal functions such as the use of imported games".
Judge Jacob disagreed. Although extremely sceptical of Sony's claims, he ruled, according to Channel Technology's paraphrased account, that:
"Sony licensed games for the territory that they were issued, the licensing of these games did not allow for their use in other territories, therefore whether they were imported for private and domestic use by personal purchase for instance via the internet, or purchased abroad on holiday, they were not allowed by Sony to be played outside of the licensed territory, this argument should be upheld."
In effect this makes it illegal to play computer games and DVDs purchased from abroad, Channel Technology argues - correctly in our view.
However, there is tension between Jacob's ruling and explicit rights granted to UK consumers through the Sale of Good Act (SGA) and the Unfair Contract Terms Act (UCTA). But until a consumer, or a group of consumers, challenges Jacob's ruling, the rights of copyright holders will take precedence.
In effect, the UK's Copyright and Patents Act 1988 gives copyright holders more power than America's highly controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), because there are no exceptions, as Martin Keegan, of the UK-based Campaign for Digital Rights points out.
He expresses concern at yesterday's ruling.
"Anti-circumvention law takes the balance in copyright law out of the hands of Parliament and the judges, and places it in the hands of technologists working for major media conglomerates.
"The music industry is being hit hard by unauthorised copying. They're using technology to restrict that copying, and the law protects this technology. However, there are no legal safeguards against abuse of copy-control technology; the technology can and is being used to prevent legally sanctioned use of material." ®