April 03, 2009 | Jim Killock

Is Queen Liz a copyright infringer (and Obama, for that matter)?

You may have read that President Obama has given Queen Elizabeth an iPod with 40 show tunes on it. Well, that’s better than the set of region one DVDs he gave Gordon Brown, but yet again as the EFF have pointed out Obama has stepped right into the territory of copyright infringement, and forced UK premiers to risk their reputations by potentially breaking the law.

Well, maybe not, as nobody in their right minds takes this sort of copyright infringement seriously. Except of course lawyers who construct 9,000 word legal contracts for iTunes, and rights holders, who resist legal change as a sort of bargaining chip to extract other concessions, like online enforcement, or levies on tapes, CDs or hard drives.

Campaigners like the EFF and the Open Rights Group, however believe that copyright law needs to be simple and clear, and reflect users' needs, if it isn’t going to be a joke.

We asked our legal experts for a quick opinion as to whether the Queen and Obama were infringing copyright. It’s very unclear. Did Obama buy her a CD, and transfer the songs? In the UK, that would be a infringement, but not in the US.

Does the US iTunes Store allow you to buy songs in the US and give them to a UK user? Probably not, but you have to wade through the 9,000 word contract to find out.

Do you ‘own’ the songs you’ve bought, entitling you to give them to someone else? Definitely not.

Of course, Obama might have been really careful about all this, and made sure his staff spent time ensuring there was no copyright infringement. It’d be good to know that his diplomatic staff were investing their time avoiding diplomatic copyright incidents, rather than, let’s say, working on a common position for a Middle East peace process. Which brings us back to the point: copyright needs to be simple and clear, and not get in the way of doing things even the US President seems to think are acceptable behaviour.

Comments (8)

  1. Lord Nelson:
    Apr 04, 2009 at 08:34 AM

    So, if i decided to throw my iPod away (or even simply mislaid it) and someone else finds it, i could be sued it seems.

  2. She’s a Killer Queen « Town Full of Losers:
    Apr 04, 2009 at 01:00 PM

    [...] Broadway show tunes. Much of the comment concerning the gift has focused on its appropriatness, the legality of the mp3s, and alternative suggestions as to what tunes he should have chosen. What the American president [...]

  3. Nicholas Lovell:
    Apr 22, 2009 at 12:08 PM

    This is an example of a creeping issue of "selective law-obeying". We've always had this (most people will happily drive over the speed limit but not walk out of a shop without paying for something), but the way in which people pick and choose which laws to obey is on the increase.

    The government has contributed to this. For example, continuing to make cannabis illegal (to appease one set of voters) while instructing the police not to prosecute recreational users (to appease another) sends the clear message that the law is not a fixed, immutable rules.

    While I am in favour of police and judicial discretion, I also believe that leaving laws on the statute books (or creating new ones) that everyone flouts damages the rule of law, which is the foundation of any civilized society.

    So I strongly disagree with Ben and agree with jaduncan and Jim Killock - we need to sort out this mess.

  4. haa haa:
    Apr 04, 2009 at 05:00 AM

    Let's sue the queen and mr. prez.

    I think it's about time they realize how silly the law is.

  5. jaduncan:
    Apr 03, 2009 at 07:24 PM

    Ben - is the rule of law important? Selectively imposed law that makes criminals of us all but is only enforced with the unpopular is wrong on many levels. Taking the position that a law is so stupid we should ignore it in favour of social norms argues for the end of that law, not selective enforcement.

    Happily though, the courts are run in the name of HM, and she is herself largely exempt. Even were this not so, receiving material is not an offence or tort, even if we accept that this type of giving might be. Barack Obama is also exempt from liability of either kind due to foreign sovereign immunity. He committed no crime within the US (assuming the tunes and video were legally downloaded) and cannot be liable for potential offences here. Please note I assume that neither party could be deemed to have been acting in a personal capacity when in the act of giving a state gift. Were this not to be so, Obama might be liable for any applicable offence after the completion of his time as President. This is not a legal opinion, and even if it were I am not your lawyer. Not even you Barack, stop calling.

  6. ConorwithoneN:
    Apr 03, 2009 at 01:57 PM

    I expect the US diplomats did indeed anticipate this issue (after the Gordon Brown DVD incident) and took appropriate steps to mitigate fallout. Perhaps someone on the US Ambassador's staff in London who are not directly involved in the Middle East bought an iPod here in the UK, purchased iTunes Music Store (UK) gift cards and set up an account in the name of Her Majesty in order to [mostly] sidestep this issue?
    Of course, that may too be precluded by the iTMS T&Cs, but Apple make a killing through iPods as Corporate gifts, so I am sure there are appropriate provisions for this.

  7. Jim Killock:
    Apr 03, 2009 at 03:35 PM

    Hi Ben,

    Yes it would be silly to pursue a case, but it's equally silly to leave copyright in such a mess. Wouldn't it be good to make copyright work for users, and maybe give it a bit more legitimacy?

  8. Ben Langfeld:
    Apr 03, 2009 at 02:53 PM

    The question is, does this really matter? As Jim rightly says, "nobody in their right minds takes this sort of copyright infringement seriously". No-one in their right mind would possibly bring a case on this. To all those insane people who would consider it: it's quite obvious there's something very lacking in their lives to pursue something quite as silly as this.

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