You have been warned

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Could downloading an MP3 music file from the internet land you with 10-year jail sentence? Will you soon require a special licence to put on a school concert? Could copying some types of music CDs be breaking the law? Three new pieces of legislation have the potential to create confusion, misunderstanding and fear among music teachers.

The Copyright etc and Trademarks (Offences Enforcement) Act became law last November and tidies up copyright and trademark legislation. The most significant development is the beefing up of the law against piracy and counterfeiting. This includes the making and dealing of illegal music files (such as millions of MP3 files on the internet) which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. This has led some to suggest that anyone downloading an MP3 file could face prison. Not so, says the Patent Office.

In fact, the Act is carefully worded to cover music pirates and counterfeiters who trade or sell pirated music, private copying is not included.

However, this isn't a green light for teachers or students to download music from the internet. Unless you have permission from the copyright owner, it is a civil offence to download music files. The music industry has traditionally focused on professional pirates, but now it is targeting wider groups. For instance, the industry has begun writing to companies and warning them that they could be sued if they allow their employees to download music files. Schools and colleges may receive similar warnings.

Last November, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) introduced a new Licensing Bill to tidy up existing licensing laws. The Bill is not expected to become law until next year. At present, separate licences have to be obtained for public entertainment, cinema and alcohol sales. The new law will see one licence replace them. The DCMS says the new licence will be much cheaper than existing licences, which can cost thousands of pounds. It sounds good, but the proposed change has outraged the Musicians Union, which claims it is a threat to live music.

Under the original proposals, churches and other places of worship would require licences for organ recitals or choral concerts for instance.

Community centres and village halls would also need to be licensed. It was even said that singing "Happy Birthday" in a restaurant or holding a nativity play at school would require a licence. The DCMS has since exempted churches and other places of worship. And while village halls and community centres will require licensing, they will not need to pay for it unless they sell alcohol.

But where does this leave schools? The DCMS says schools should welcome the new law because it only applies to public entertainment. So playing music at an assembly or putting on a concert for parents will not require a licence (nor will singing in a restaurant for that matter). However, if a school puts on a concert and charges admission, then it will require a licence. The DCMS points out that schools already need a licence to do this. There will be two kinds of licences schools can apply for. The first will involve a one-off payment of pound;100-500 (the price will depend on a number of factors including the size of the venue) and an annual fee of pound;50-150.

If a school holds five public entertainment performances or fewer each year, it will be able to apply for a Temporary Event licence costing pound;20 per performance. This still leaves the grey area of community schools and colleges whose halls or centres are also used by the community. The DCMS says it would be up to local authorities (which will handle the licensing) to decide whether the school's facilities are eligible to be classed as a community centre.

The third piece of legislation is the European Union Copyright Directive, which is designed to harmonise copyright laws across Europe. But the Directive has worried the Education Copyright Users Forum (ECUF), whose members include library, teaching and local government associations. Both groups are concerned that their members could inadvertently fall foul of the law when copying music, because the new Directive would make it an offence to circumvent copy protection technology.

An increasing number of music CDs are using copy protection systems designed to stop users from playing them on a PC or copying them on to a computer hard drive, so attempting to make a digital copy of these discs would be an offence under the new law. As the existing directive stands, schools would have to appeal to the government for exemption.

Frank Harris, chair of EUCF, warns: "It's a very complex picture and we have got to get it right the first time, because there will no be no debate in Parliament - it will simply become law."

The Patent Office is drafting the legislation, which could become law later this year.

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