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In episode 28 of Supreme Court Briefs, Universal Studios, Disney, and other media corporations sue Sony for copyright infringement after Sony creates this device that can record stuff so that viewers can watch it later.
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Punch sound effect by Mike Koenig
Sony develops a new technology called Betamax. It was the first video tape recording form made widely available for the public. People could use this technology to, for the first time ever, record stuff from live TV or even from other recordings for future use.
Now, eventually, Betamax would lose the of the late 1970s and early 1980s to its archenemy, the dreaded VHS. While Beta was a formidable opponent, VHS triumphed, until it eventually was defeated in another war to the great DVD.
Anyway, for the first couple years, before VHS entered the scene, Betamax was living the dream, the next big thing. But many corporations in the film and television industries did not like this new technology so much. Universal Studios, the Walt Disney Company and other TV and film corporations sued Sony’s American-based operations in California District Court for copyright infringement. These corporations argued that Sony’s customers were using the Betamax recording devices to record copyrighted programs so they could view them later. The nerve!
Two years later-man things can move slowly in court- the California District Court ruled in favor of Sony, arguing that recording for noncommercial home use fell under fair use guidelines, and that access to free public information was protected under the First Amendment under fair use. One major problem with fair use, however, is that it can be interpreted many ways, you know like the Bible, or the Constitution?
Universal Studios and the rest appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court, who in 1981 reversed the lower court’s decision, saying that yes, Sony was contributing to copyright infringement by selling these Betamax machines. They argued the main purpose of Betamax was copying, and even suggested damages to be paid to the TV and film corporations and further legal restrictions on Betamax and similar home recording technologies like VHS. By this time, though, both Beta and VHS were selling like crazy.
Sony of course appealed to the Supreme Court, who heard oral arguments on January 18, 1983. The Court really struggled with this one. And they’re weren’t divided politically, meaning this wasn’t your typical conservative/liberal divide. Perhaps they just had a hard time grasping the implications of this new technology.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion expecting the Court to rule against Sony and for Universal and the rest. However, he wrote the opinion as if it was a majority opinion. By sneakily doing this, he may have persuaded two justices, William Brennan and Byron White to come his way. On January 17, 1984, the Court finally announced its decision. It was 5-4, in favor of Sony.
The Court argued that many broadcast copyright holders didn’t care if their programming was copied for home use. The most famous example of this was Fred Rogers or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame. Rogers testified at the district court and said he was cool with it, saying it actually helped his show be seen more.