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Australians who download movies and music without paying may need to change their habits. What will Australia's new copyright law changes mean for you?
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23 Jun 2015 - 4:31 PM  UPDATED 24 Jun 2015 - 5:56 PM

If you currently download movies and music without paying, your habits may need to change when new copyright rules become law.

The Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 is designed to prevent Australians accessing some overseas websites, like the popular BitTorrent network site The Pirate Bay.

The bill was passed in Australia’s Senate on Monday but has not yet become law.

The law will not actually stop people who insist on downloading illegal content from overseas websites, as methods of side-stepping ISP filters are numerous and details are published widely online.

So, with online piracy set to become more difficult for many Australians, what is this new law and what does it mean for you?

What are the legislative changes?

The copyright law amendment means intellectual property rights holders, like Hollywood movie companies, will be able to launch cases in the Federal Court of Australia to force a Carriage Service Provider (Internet Service Provider, or ISP) to make reasonable steps to block access to an overseas website.

Infringing copyright must be proven to be the website's primary purpose.

The amendments to the Copyright Act 1968 do not explain whether Internet Service Providers will need to block IP addresses, which identify web servers, or web addresses.

The bill's explanatory memorandum says the Federal Court of Australia may order the parties to establish a landing page to inform users of the reasons why the website is blocked.

Virtual Private Networks (VPN) will not be the target of the law, the explanatory memorandum says, but protections for VPNs are not in the amendment.

What does this mean for your internet use?

Nothing at first.

Even if you currently share torrent files like movies or music without paying, nothing will change until a rights holder has success in the Federal Court of Australia to order an ISP to block a website.

An ISP would then be required to take reasonable steps to filter the website from its customers' access.

There is also some question as to how effective ISP filtering will be.

Methods of side-stepping ISP filtering can be easily found using a search engine.

In the UK, BitTorrent website The Pirate Bay has been blocked since 2012 but research suggests pirates have turned to smaller pirate websites that have not been blocked.

The same research says when several pirate websites are blocked, the difficulty of accessing pirated content increases.

It is not clear whether the ISPs and their customers will pay the costs for blocking a website.

When a website is to be blocked the Federal Court of Australia may decide if rights holders or the ISP must pay for the costs of implementing an order, the bill's explanatory memorandum says.

What do people say about the law?

Village Roadshow, a major film and DVD distribution and cinema company, supports the new law. The company says continued piracy would mean Australia’s film and television drama industry would be shut down.

Pirate websites were run by criminals, who received advertising money while facilitating theft, Village Roadshow said in a submission to a Senate inquiry.

Village Roadshow said Australians would benefit from the new law.

“Of course strong action against piracy means there is a benefit to the United States studios and to their feature film release program but this is secondary to the benefit to Australia and Australians,” Village Roadshow said in its submission.

Vanessa Hutley from Music Rights Australia said told SBS it was an important step for rights holders. 

"We have a huge problem with these sites," said Ms Hutley. "They make only money for the people who operate it, and so this will be an important arm for rights holders to protect their rights."

Gizmodo editor Luke Hopewell said services such as Netflix have made illegal downloads less relevant. But for the laws to work more effectively, rights holders need to make sacrifices.

"Consumers are still noticing those catalogues aren't as full as they could be," Mr Hopewell told SBS.

"If rights holders could let go of some of that content so it can be negotiated to have more content in Australia available on these services at those good prices, that's the carrot we need, and we can get the stick if we don't behave later on."

Consumer advocate magazine Choice said ISP filtering was ineffective, but provided some insight into why Australians pirate content.

Prohibitive prices and availability of content were the main reasons, and many would exhaust legal options for accessing content before resorting to piracy, Choice said.

Research commissioned by the IP Awareness Foundation, who aim to raise awareness about the impact of piracy, suggests there are increasing options for Australians to legally consume television programs and movies.

The online survey of more than 1200 Australians between ages 12 and 64 suggests there are an increasing number of people who access content legally, by downloading or streaming content.

Paying for content was important for the survival of content creation, IP Australia Foundation's executive director Lori Flekser said.

“We’ve got to encourage a respect for copyright and we’ve got to encourage the sheer self-interest that the audience can develop in making sure that the economic cycle that creates good new material is being funded by the ability to pay for it," Ms Flekser said.

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What about overseas VPN services?

Concerns about the law include the possibility for overseas VPN services to be blocked.

VPNs provide some privacy for people online by preventing ISPs from collecting their metadata and could be used to avoid the ISP filter. Some people use VPNs to access geoblocked content on Netflix.

More importantly, VPNs are useful for journalists, journalists’ sources, lawyers, activists and others who want to make spying on them harder for governments and criminals.

Swinburne University of Technology’s Doctor Angela Daly, who specialises in communications and media law, said the explanatory memorandum's statement that VPNs would not be targeted was not enough to prevent VPNs from being blocked.

“It would be better if it was explicitly in the act that VPNs could not be blocked,” Dr Daly said.

Explanatory memorandums were only a guide for the courts, she said.

Dr Daly was also concerned that legal content could be caught up in the new law.

In the UK, ISP filtering of IP addresses has resulted in numerous legitimate websites being blocked, BBC reported in 2013

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