But it's not a tax because the cash doesn't go to government, it goes usually to one or more collecting societies to be distributed amongst its members.
Members receiving a portion of the levy are typically the creators who contribute to the type of copyrighted work capable of being stored, so e.g. the levy on old school VHS cassettes would go to TV/Film content makers and audio cassettes to musicians.
Digital media is complicated by the fact it can be used to store printed, audio or visual works, but that doesn't stop a levy being imposed and then distributed via multiple societies.
Most EU countries have some kind of blank media levy, as do many countries worldwide. Notable EU exceptions are UK and Luxembourg.
The principle is sound to a point. Manufacturers of such goods typically profit from consumer demand driven in many cases by private copying of copyrighted films, songs, books etc - so why shouldn't the artists, authors, writers and musicians share in these profits?
The case was perhaps stronger for analogue media because there really was very little else one could do with a C90 cassette.
My own collection is mainly recordings from the radio (time shifting, as legalised by Margaret Thatcher) with two notable exceptions: an interview with my grandma as part of a school project on wartime memories and a cringeworthy tape where I pretend to be a talk-show radio presenter.
So case well made - demand for cassettes was driven mainly by private copying of copyrighted work, manufacturers profit from this, so hand over the dosh.
Today levies are applied in varying countries on most digital storage and reprographic consumables: hard disks, USB memory sticks, printer cartridges, toner... Pretty much anything that could potentially be used for copyright infringement.
However the lines are blurred because of a massive increase in non-infringing use for digital media and printers stemming from:
- The emergence of "direct to digital" legal download purchasing. When I buy a song from iTunes or an ebook from Amazon I'm paying for a license when I buy the book. Every ebook I own is legally purchased. It makes about as much sense to tax my ebook reader as it would to tax my bookshelf when I bought physical books.
- User-generated content. Often spun as a myth by vested interests trying to overplay the harm from private copying, user generated content now accounts for a significant proportion of storage or printer output in some sectors. E.g. most people use their colour printers to print their own digital photographs, why should the members of a collecting society be rewarded for each printer cartridge I use to print my own photographs, just because I could be printing someone else's downloaded from the internet?
That said, despite a rebalancing of infringing vs non-infringing use there is still significant infringement in some categories, e.g. the storage of music on hard disks and flash memory.
There is an argument that private copying is driving demand for memory but to a lesser extent than e.g. with audio cassettes.
But the fact hardware manufacturers are profiting doesn't answer the other important question: is the profit coming at the expense of money lost to legitimate rights holders?
Recital 35 of the EU Copyright Directive encourages assessment of harm as a 'valuable criterion' when evaluating a fair compensation payable to cover lawful exemptions such as private copying, noting: 'In certain situations where the prejudice to the rightholder would be minimal, no obligation for payment may arise.'
Harm is important because a collective licensing approach brings its own problems. It is therefore important to ensure any levy collected remains proportional to the reward due because a reward structure based heavily on collective licensing can skew the creative market, encouraging quantity over quality.
Collecting societies are often criticised for the opaque way that funds are distributed amongst members. It's a complex equation to try and ensure creators are rewarded based on the importance and value of their output.
Whilst it's relatively easy when dealing with popular works such as songs and films to judge popularity from e.g. box office takings and sales, it's far harder to work out a fair share for so-called 'stock' items such as photographs, general purpose incidental music/'beds' etc.
Many jobbing photographers and musicians rely on collective royalties to make their career pay, but such arguments aren't easy to make to many new media creators whose output falls completely under the radar.
Take this blog - you're reading it, but will I get paid for my creative output? Should computer, smartphone and tablet manufacturers be rewarding me and oodles of other amateur creators of video, animation, art and software?
Of course not - it's a simple case of value, supply and demand. Plenty of us do it, the output on a whole is of minimum value to society and demand is tepid - it's taken 2 years on here plus 3 years on this blog's forerunners to build up a worthy audience ~4k unique visitors per week.
Yes there is still the argument that my and others' creative output is fuelling demand for internet-enabled devices and, specifically, making profits for service providers such as Google and other platform owners hosting user-generated content.
But there is also no quantifiable harm. People reading my stuff on those devices and Google providing a free hosting platform in order to make money doesn't infringe on my legitimate right to commercially exploit my copyright.
In fact there is only benefit, since without computers blogs wouldn't exist and without platforms like Blogger and YouTube many content creators simply wouldn't have an audience.
But there is still one lingering question around sustainability and equity. There is simply no model for many to make a sustainable living from online content.
Take advertising on this blog - estimate $1.91 per day, which actually turned out to be £1.71 per week when I ran adverts all last week.
Today the only viable advertising model comes from high volume low value content. Pull in millions of visitors to view content that is hideously cheap to create or curate and you have a sustainable income for an individual or small company.
Facebook make around 2 cents per active user per day. Not much.
Online funding models are in their infancy but are massively unfair when they allow pirate website operators to rake in around £150,000 per year merely from hosting categorised links to infringing content elsewhere.
At the same time, the online equivalent of a weekly local newspaper is an absolute non-starter, commercially speaking.
I find it a bit odd that advertising can fund the physical production and distribution of a free local newspaper yet it is not possible for many (anyone?) to make an ad-funded return on a weekly online readership of say 10,000 with no print or distribution costs and all the creative input coming from one person or a small number of people.
Why, when UK advertisers now spend more money on online advertising than print advertising doesn't the online equivalent work?
Yes I know physical newspaper circulation has a different ad value to digital pageviews, but the ad returns are an order of magnitude smaller.
It's in all our interests to ensure abuses of the system such as pirate websites making money from advertising are minimised as this will probably allow those ad revenues to find their way to other, legitimate, causes.
There are no easy answers here. Collective licensing can skew the market. Collective licensing won't reward many of today's digital creators. Collective licensing won't stop unfair distribution of advertising returns. Collective licensing will penalise legitimate direct-to-digital purchases and home-made content.
And I don't favour censorship either. Stamping out piracy is only part of the problem. The whole creative industry needed the bolt up the arse provided by digital piracy to remind everyone of a step-change in the supply/demand equation.
Just as amateur bloggers don't expect to get paid much, if anything; many amateur musicians or photographers are just happy for their work to be used in a podcast or on a website. The value of many photographs or music as a commodity has dropped dramatically now anyone can produce and distribute. But as my friend and professional musician Steve Lawson put it: Music is worthless. The meaning we invest in music is priceless.
Now go Read Steve's excellent blog on that.