03 July, 2013

Retrospective - Betamax and Copyright Infringement

When copyright is concerned there has always been a struggle between two competing interests; copyright owners who wish to benefit from the fruits of their labor, and the consumers who want to utilize copyrighted material, sometimes to the potential detriment of the former party. As new methods have emerged in the consumption of copyrighted works, so have the wishes of the owners to protect their material gotten louder. At the end of that path to equilibrium lies a simple albeit still complex question: do people have the right to use copyrighted material in manners which the owner's object to?

One of the most influential cases of the past few decades, Sony Corporation of America v Universal City Studios, endeavored to tackle that issue in relation to a wholly new piece of technology; Betamax tapes. For those born after the 70s (this writer included), Betamax tapes were akin to VHS cassettes which were used to both view and record movies and TV shows, much like DVDs today. This technology enable the recording and re-watching of content on TV at a later date outside of the broadcast times or releases of commercial copies of those programs. Universal Studios and Disney objected to this new technology as it clashed with their interest in re-releasing content to be sold to consumers, which they clearly would not buy should they have recorded the programs once they were broadcast on TV. Subsequently Universal Studios took Sony to court, eventually ending up in the US Supreme Court.

"What is this 'video cassette' you speak of..?"
What the court had to assess was whether the users of Betamax, who recorded content broadcast on TV, were infringing copyright and whether Sony could be held responsible for that infringement. In essence what was being decided was whether Sony was making the infringement of copyright possible by providing the users with this capability through their Betamax recorders, thus being liable for their infringement. What makes this argument is that at the time no such express provision existed in copyright, however Universal argued that Sony was liable for contributory infringement, a principle relating to patents and not copyright. The court put forth that this would come down to assessing whether "...the product is widely used for legitimate, unobjectionable purposes". What this means is just looking at whether the recorder would be used for recording TV programs for a legitimate, unobjectionable purpose, such as for later viewing for the sake of convenience, and not for example used for commercial copying of content. Clearly one could argue that domestic copying of content in that fashion is a non-objectionable use and wholly legitimate, and at the time was one of the primary uses for the device. There always has to be a balance between the legitimate interests of users and the protection afforded to copyright owners.

For Sony to be deemed to be liable under contributory infringement, the court had to decide whether Betamax recorders are capable of commercially significant non-infringing uses. This could be seen as whether the non-infringing uses would impact Universal Studios, or others, commercially through those uses. The court stated that it would be a matter of exploring all possible uses for the machines and determining whether those uses would be infringing or not, and what amount of uses would be commercially significant. The court did decide that Betamax recorders could be capable of commercially significant non-infringing uses, but for Sony to be liable there still remained the factor of whether those uses would be infringing ones.
How teenagers view older generations and themselves

The court drew its attention to the US fair use provision in deciding whether domestic time-shifting would be an infringing act. The court accepted the District Court's findings and saw that domestic time-shifting of content would fall under fair use. This was due to Sony's evidence as to the licensing of content for broadcasting on free TV, and content providers not objecting to its recording for viewing at a later time, and Universal could not show any actual damage caused due to time-shifting.

The decision swayed 5-4 in favor of Sony, but the dissenting opinion given by Justice Blackmun could've shaped copyright in a wholly different manner should it have been the majority opinion. The dissenting view was one which emphasized the exclusive rights given to copyright owners, noting that in their opinion expanding fair use would take away control for the copyright owners and deprive them of their incentive to create. Justice Blackmun also noted that fair use should apply mainly to 'productive' uses of works, such as for criticism and review, and prohibit their uses for 'unproductive' purposes such as time-shifting. Arguably Justice Blackmun's views come from a wrong approach, one which protects the copyright holder's rights but completely ignores the evolving needs and uses by ordinary consumers, thus creating an imbalance. Justice Blackmun also criticized the majority's approach in deciding contributory infringement through the capability of commercially significant non-infringing uses in stating that "[s]uch a definition essentially eviscerates the concept of contributory infringement. Only the most unimaginative manufacturer would be unable to demonstrate that a image-duplicating product is "capable" of substantial noninfringing uses. Surely Congress desired to prevent the sale of products that are used almost exclusively to infringe copyrights; the fact that noninfringing uses exist presumably would have little bearing on that desire".

All-in-all Sony v Universal Studios made an important mark on copyright and fair use, and has helped in formulating current principles in both. Should Sony have been found liable for contributory infringement, how we record or enjoy media today could be totally different. Manufacturers would have to either pay hefty licensing fees for any recording devices, the cost of which would have been undoubtedly transferred onto the end-consumer, or the manufacturers would have refrained from producing such devices completely. As someone who grew up using VHS recorders to watch content, I can't imagine a World without such a capability.

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