The law, known as the Copyright and Related Rights Regulations 2003, was drafted by the U.K.'s Patent Office. It is modeled on the controversial European Union Copyright Directive, broad legislation designed to protect content makers from the growing phenomenon of digital piracy that has ravaged media and software companies.
The United Kingdom joins Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece and Italy in ratifying the legislation whose deadline for adoption passed 10 months ago. It remains in limbo in the other nine EU member states, according to legal experts following the directive. "It's unfortunate, but at least it's moving forward," Francisco Mingorance, director of public policy for software trade body the Business Software Alliance, said of the delays.
Consumer protection groups, legal experts and industry executives differ on how to stop piracy while preserving consumer rights in an era in which all manner of protected works are just a mouse click away.
Content makers have soughtfrom Internet file-sharing networks such as Kazaa or for burning songs onto blank compact discs, saying it is a form of theft.
Civil liberty advocates, meanwhile, have urged lawmakers to adopt new laws that protect consumer freedoms, many of which are written into law in the form of "fair use" exceptions for protected works.
In some countries, including Germany, consumers are permitted to make backup copies of a purchased CD, for example. In the United Kingdom, however, no such fair-use provision exists.
The EU directive failed to get member countries to agree on a single set of fair-use exceptions, setting the stage for a mishmash of laws governing how consumers can store and play media and software on their PCs or other digital devices.
"The national governments could never agree," said Mingorance, whose trade group represents tech companies such as Microsoft and Apple Computer.
The EU also gave the individual country the right to decide on how to treat new digital rights management technologies, which, for example, would prevent consumers from copying CDs or DVDs. The United Kingdom affords new protections to such technologies.
The United Kingdom has adopted what many consider to be Europe's toughest digital copyright law, seeking to protect a media industry that exports many of its works to overseas audiences.
Struan Robertson, an IT and e-commerce lawyer for the law firm Masons, posted a statement on legal Web site out-law.com earlier this month accusing the new U.K. law of being too broad, one that could imprison music fans who download works from free file-sharing, or peer-to-peer (P2P), networks.
"The law on the provision of P2P services was ambiguous before, and it remains ambiguous," Robertson said. "But those using the services in this country...are facing a new threat."
A spokesman for the U.K. Patent Office said the law is not designed to imprison or fine individual who share files.
"This law is aimed at the most dangerous activity: the organized crime gangs with warehouses of pirated materials," patent office spokesman Jeremy Philpott said. "It is not meant to bring criminal charges to individual downloaders."
He added that individual downloaders would still be subject to civil penalties, which would include injunctions and/or a demand of payment for damages. They would not be hit with prison term or fines, he said.