Copyright laws in Australia are a stunning example of confusion and contradiction, writes David Hellaby. Here?s a quick guide to staying on the right side of the law.

Consumer electronics devices have long since given us the ability to copy audio and video. The humble VCR has been around for nearly three decades, and remember taping your favourite songs from the radio? In fact, we?re so used to being able to copy our television and music that we hardly think about whether it?s legal or not. So what exactly are the laws concerning copying music and video in Australia? Are your music and video collections a pirate?s hoard of forbidden gold? And what, if anything, is being done about it?

Now that we?re in the ?digital? age, the almost insatiable demand to record music, movies, games, images and data has manufacturers pushing for technologies that can store more than today?s recordable CDs and DVDs. The next era of recordable devices will use HD DVD (high density digital video disc) or Blu-ray technology, which can store five or six times more data than a standard DVD. Another device that will see much more interest over 2005 is the personal video recorder, or PVR. These will normally be built into digital set-top boxes and DVD recorders, providing quick storage for hours of video and audio.

No copying allowed

The fact is that most recording and copying of television programs, music, movies and almost any other form of electronic entertainment is illegal. Contrary to popular belief, the law says you are not allowed to record television programs for personal use; you are not allowed to make back-up copies of computer games; you cannot download music from a CD to your computer or an MP3 player and you cannot make backup copies (in any form) of movies unless specific permission is given by the owner of the copyright.

In fact, the word copyright is a total misnomer. Under Australian law you have no right to copy any copyrighted material without the express permission of the author or creator except in very strictly defined circumstances. While music, game and movie piracy undoubtedly costs the respective industries billions of dollars globally, the Australian laws offer no compromise between protection and commonsense. They are designed to protect the rights of the creators of original material such as books, music, movies, scripts, and computer programs but they can be inflexible and draconian for the average consumer.

The law allows for either civil or criminal remedies. For example you could be sued by the copyright owner or, in extreme cases, you could be criminally prosecuted and face a fine of up to $60,500 or a jail term of up to five years. While such prosecutions are not common, at least three people have been convicted in the past 12 months.