1984: SCOTUS Rules in Favor of Home Video Recording Devices
On this day in 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal for individuals to record television shows on home video recording devices for later viewing, and makers of home video recording equipment could not be held liable for contributory copyright infringement.
The case, Sony Corp. of America vs. Universal City Studios, Inc. (also referred to as the “Betamax Case”), stemmed from a 1976 lawsuit filed by Universal Studios and the Walt Disney Company against Sony, developers of the Betamax video tape recording device. The companies argued that Sony’s development of a product that could be used for copyright infringement made them liable for any infringement committed by the product’s users. Sony asserted that consumers had the right to record programs for private use, citing the use of cassette tapes for recording music as a precedence.
While many in the television industry opposed video tape technology, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers testified that he felt the technology was a benefit to families, allowing them to choose convenient times for television viewing:
“Some public stations, as well as commercial stations, program the Neighborhood at hours when some children cannot use it. … I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the Neighborhood off-the-air — and I’m speaking for the Neighborhood because that’s what I produce — that they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been “You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions.” Maybe I’m going on too long, but I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”
The initial case was argued in California’s District Court, which in 1979 ruled in favor of Sony. In 1981, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision. In 1983, the case made its way to the Supreme Court.
By the time the case was argued in the Supreme Court, video recording technology had expanded with the introduction of a competing video recording format, VHS. The 5-4 ruling reversed the appellate court ruling.