Britain is poised to adopt a European Union copyright law designed to stop music, film and software piracy, which could carry heavy penalties for people who download pirated files.
The EU Copyright Directive, a broad set of laws designed to protect content makers, is similar to the controversial U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Parliament is expected to pass the law some time this month, about 10 months after the deadline for EU members to enact the legislation.
The law was opposed at various times by civil liberty advocates, who argued it went too far and infringed on consumer freedoms, and by the music industry, which did not think it went far enough to crack down on piracy.
One provision would make it illegal to "communicate" a copyrighted work to the public "to such an extent as to affect prejudicially the owner of the copyright," and carries a maximum penalty of a fine and two years in jail.
The law would also make illegal the circumvention of copy-protection schemes, such as copying songs from a protected CD or watching a DVD on a computer using the Linux operating system.
A U.S. researcher published research earlier this month on how to disable a CD copy-protection scheme by simply holding down a computer's shift key. Sunncomm, which made the copy-protection technology, initially said it would sue Princeton University graduate student Alex Halderman under the DMCA, but subsequently backed away from the threat.
The EU Copyright Directive has an exemption for academic research into copyright protection schemes, but "it's very vague as to how much you can publish and in what form," said Midgley.
The recording industry has been suing music downloaders in the United States for several months to crack down on piracy, which has dented the bottom line of the major music companies.
No lawsuits have been filed thus far in the UK, though there are already laws banning copyright infringement.