March 28, 2005 4:00 AM PST
FAQ: Betamax--tech's favorite ruling
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gave viewers the right to record, or gave guidelines on how long tapes could be kept before being erased.
How did the case get to the Supreme Court?
The District Court initially ruled in favor of Sony, saying that "time-shifting"--recording a show so it could be watched later--was legal. But even if it had been deemed copyright infringement, the court said Sony couldn't be held legally responsible for those actions.
A court of appeals decision upended that judgment, saying that copying TV programming at home was not fair use. Because videocassette recorders were sold primarily for making copies of copyrighted works, the court said Sony should be liable for damages, and potentially should be barred from selling VCRs.
Who supported the studios?
Amici, or "friends of the court," briefs were filed in support of the studios by the Association of American Publishers, CBS, the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Music Publishers Association, the Recording Industry Association of America and the Writers Guild of America, among others.
Who supported Sony?
Amici briefs were filed in support of Sony by the American Library Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, GE, Hitachi, Sears, Toshiba and 12 states, among others.
What did the Supreme Court rule?
In 1984, after seven years of litigation, the Supreme Court largely upheld the lower court's initial ruling. In the most far-reaching portion of that decision, that court said flatly that a product is not liable for contributory infringement if it is also used for legitimate purposes. "Indeed, it need merely be capable of substantial noninfringing uses," the court wrote.
The court also held that home recording, at least for the noncommercial use of "time shifting," was not infringement.
If copying at home is OK, why are people being sued for file-swapping?
People who are uploading music though peer-to-peer networks aren't viewed as doing it for personal use. Their actions potentially have an effect on the market for music or videos in a way that recording a TV show and watching it later does not. Record labels have said that "ripping" a CD to MP3 files, or burning a few copies, as long as they're for personal use, is OK.
OK, but why isn't DVD-copying software legal?
Home copying is legal, but entertainment companies aren't required to let you do it. There's another law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which makes it illegal to break through any antipiracy protections put on digital media. Movie studios protect their DVDs against copying, and so all the software that breaks through this protection is illegal to distribute in the United States.
Most memorable quote on the issue:
In 1982, testifying in front of Congress before the Supreme Court had ruled, MPAA President Jack Valenti said, "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."
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