The Australian music industry and Parliament are increasing their support for proposed changes to the copyright law that would introduce a levy on blank recording media.

SYDNEY -- The Australian music industry and Parliament are increasing their support for proposed changes to the copyright law that would introduce a levy on blank recording media.

A campaign to amend Australia's Copyright Act (1968) to allow music copying for personal use was initiated in mid-June by Phil Tripp, managing director of Sydney-based events company Immedia and publisher of the Australasian Music Industry Directory.

Under current law, Australians who make personal copies of recorded media are in breach of the Copyright Act. Penalties range from $500 Australian ($350) to $5,000 Australian ($3,500).

Tripp proposes allowing music buyers to copy their purchases onto recordable discs, tapes or digital music players, all of which would carry a levy.

Tripp claims to be acting as a private individual who believes that the law on private copying is wrong and that consumers' rights are being ignored. He dismisses record-industry assertions that legalization of copying will lead to lost sales.

"That has not been the case in overseas countries where such a levy was introduced," he says. "If anything, a levy puts a value on music as far as customers are concerned."

A levy system similar to that proposed by Tripp exists in Canada. It is administered by the Canadian Private Copying Collective, which collected about $20 million (U.S.) during 2003.

The Australian government is already considering modifying aspects of the Copyright Act to put it in line with a planned Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. The FTA is expected to go into effect by the end of 2004.

A June 25 FTA report by the Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties recommended that the government consider applying the blank-media levy and making other provisions for personal copying.

Tripp says the size of a levy would be determined by the government's Copyright Tribunal. Monies would be collected and distributed back to artists, songwriters, labels and publishers through the Australasian Performing Right Assn. (APRA). That body is supporting Tripp's stance.

APRA CEO Brett Cottle says a levy is a sensible move. "Technical solutions will not stop copying because they can be hacked, and they alienate the very people we want back into buying music," he says.

In November 2003, APRA and its film-industry equivalent, Screenrights, proposed plans to the government for a levy similar to that suggested by Tripp. The proposal was rejected because it lacked universal support.

Labels body the Australian Record Industry Assn. (ARIA) is against legalizing copying. "Copyright holders have the right to control how their copyright is used," insists ARIA CEO Stephen Peach. He claims that any retreat from that policy would "confuse consumers."

In 1984, ARIA's own proposal to introduce a blank-tape levy was rejected by the Australian High Court as unconstitutional, after tape manufacturers and equipment companies challenged the plan in court.

APRA's Cottle acknowledges that peculiarities in the Australian Constitution pose "quite serious drafting and practical problems in enacting a (levy) system." Those problems do not exist in countries like Finland, Germany and Canada, where levy systems have been introduced, he adds.

Tripp initiated preliminary discussions in May with government intellectual property advisers in the Attorney General's Department and the Department of Communications, Information Technology & the Arts. The Attorney General's Department provides support to the government in maintaining and improving Australia's legal system.

Tripp then sought support for a legal change from 25 music-industry associations. These included labels' body Australian Independent Record (AIR), the Australian Music Retailers Assn. (AMRA), the Music Managers Forum, the Country Music Assn. of Australia and the Folk Alliance of Australia.

AIR and AMRA say they will discuss Tripp's proposal at the board level; other bodies confirm that they are considering it. All would be expected to make individual representations to the government on how their members would benefit from the change.

The Australian Consumers Assn. is backing Tripp's campaign. "The FTA coming before Parliament seeks to adopt the draconian U.S. line on copyright without attending to crucial aspects of consumer protection," says senior policy officer Charles Britton.

"The U.S. has a constitutional guarantee of free speech," he points out, "(but) we do not. The U.S. has fair-use provisions that provide some level of protection for consumers in home copying. We do not."

Britton says the Copyright Act must be changed with the advent of the FTA in order to strengthen consumer' rights.