The Intellectual Property Office (IPO), the government agency formerly known as the Patent Office (not Prince) is currently consulting on the scope of the exemptions to copyright infringement. As copyright law typically lags behind both the available technology and common practice, it should not be a surprise that this consultation on the digital age is long overdue.

By way of example, one of the exemptions being consulted on is the "format shifting" exemption. While we have had the time shifting exemption for some time now (recording TV programmes on your VCR to watch at a time more convenient), format shifting is currently copyright infringement. Format shifting is where the user copies a legitimately purchased copyright work into another format that is more convenient to them e.g. copying CDs onto a PC or converting music files to MP3.

One of the aims of extending the copyright infringement exemptions to format shifting must be to avoid the "its ok everyone does it" mentality of copyright infringement. The idea is that if people know they are allowed to "format shift" but not to say download films from the Internet, then this will assist businesses and the creators they represent in preventing others infringing their work.

The current proposal is to limit the format shifting exemption to private use, so it would not cover selling, gifting or otherwise sharing the copy, including sharing through Internet file-sharing sites. One of the specific areas for consultation is the extent to this proposed exemption and whether it is limited to sound recordings and films or can be extended more widely.

Canny readers may be wondering about the implications of Article 5 of the Copyright Directive (2001/29/EC) in relation this new proposed exemption. As regards existing exemptions allowing for private copying, which are contained in the Directive, Article 5 provides that the right holders of such copyright materials copied for private purposes are to receive "fair compensation". According to the IPO, the limited nature of the new proposed exemption does not raise the spectre of such an obligation on the consumer to pay fair compensation. Whether misguided or not, in the opinion of the IPO the proposals will represent a fair balance between the interests of both copyright owners and consumers and if the copyright owners wish to go further, then digital rights management (DRM) technologies are open to them to protect their assets.

The other proposals are targeted at allowing schools and universities to make the best use of digital technologies, such as interactive whiteboards and virtual learning networks for distance learning and also to allow the use of technology to archive material before the format it is stored on goes out of date or the hard copy deteriorates. Currently there are exemptions for educational use. However, these only apply to copying not "communicating" the copy to the public and so prevent copies being electronically sent to distance-learning students.

The consultation follows some of the recommendations made in the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property we have covered in previous IP e-bulletins. As the exemptions are the subject of consultation, their details and full extent are yet to become clear. However you can have your say by responding before 8 April 2008. The embryonic nature of the proposals mean that anyone who is interested should seize this real opportunity to help shape the extent of copyright protection in the digital age. The consultation raises some interesting questions as to the scope of the proposed exemptions and the IP e-bulletin will keep you up to date with developments in future editions.

Oh and as for the Prince reference, the consultation also aims to add a new exemption of caricature, parody or pastiche.