Thirty years ago, on 18 January 1983, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Sony Corporation v. Universal Studios, INC., or what is often known as the Betamax case. Betamax is the name of the early home video recording system more commonly called VCRs. Of course, VCRs have gone the way of cassette recorders and eight track tapes, but at the time it was a ubiquitous and revolutionary change in how people watched televised entertainment. Before VCRs, and of course our current systems of Ti-Vo, Netflix, Amazon and streaming video, we Americans were enslaved to the network system of television viewing, with the exception of the growing cable industry. The VCR gave viewers choice as to when they would watch their favorite programs instead of having to either miss a show because of work or because they wanted to watch something else that aired at the same time.
This also meant that viewers could fast forward past commercials or other parts of a broadcast they did not want to watch. To companies like Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions (a co-party to the suit against Sony) this was a potential blow to their revenue stream. They argued originally in the California District Court that the VTRs (Video Tape Recorders) made Sony a contributory infringer of Universal’s and Disney’s copyrights. Universal stated that Sony was liable for such copyright infringement because of their marketing of the VTRs. Universal ET. Al., sought damages, an equitable accounting of profits, and an injunction against manufacture and marketing of VTRs. The District Court denied all relief, stating that:
…noncommercial home use recording of material broadcast over the public airwaves was fair use of copyrighted works and did not constitute copyright infringement, and that petitioners (Sony) couldn’t be held liable as contributory infringers even if the home use of a VTR was considered an infringing use.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court ruling and ordered the District Court to fashion appropriate relief, landing the case before the US Supreme Court when Sony petitioned. In a 5-4 decision, the High Court held with the District Court findings. The opinion read by Justice Stevens held that the sale of the VTRs to the general public did not constitute a contributory infringement of copyright. In addition, the opinion held that many of the creators of the broadcast entertainment would be glad to have their material recorded so that more people could view it. Sony v. Universal was a landmark case and opened the doors to a vast scope of creative invention that otherwise would have been squashed, had the Court ruled in favor of Universal and Disney.
Of course, that was thirty years ago and Sony v. Universal is often cited in regards more recent challenges to copyright issues. The case against Napster and other forms of file sharing evoked Sony v. Universal, and today one wonders if this seminal event of jurisprudence would still carry in today’s high stakes entertainment dollars climate. The Court of thirty years ago could not have foreseen the event of streaming video and entities such as Netflix, Amazon, and Google. The makeup of the Court then was very different, and Justice Marshall with Justices Powell and Rehnquist joining delivered an almost acrimonious dissenting opinion. Modern legal scholars are turning their attention to those dissenting remarks. However, the Court does not like to reverse itself regardless of its ideological and political leanings. Therefore, it is perhaps safe to say that the Betamax case will continue to be evoked and challenged in the field of copyright and fair use.