P2P In Court, Part 2: A History Lesson, Or Why You Have a VCR

In 1984 a case came to the Supreme Court called Sony Versus Universal Studios (Universal Studios hereafter "US", the case herafter "SvUS"). Wanna read some about it? Go here. US was trying to claim copyright infringement against Sony for their Betamax VCR technology because it allowed people to copy copyrighted materials.

But Sony wasn’t actually breaking copyright when its users did so. So what was US’s beef? They were pushing for "contributory infringement", of which there was already precedent in patent law. Its not that Sony was actually infringing copyrights. They were just aiding others to do so. This was the complaint of US.

In the end, SvUS went the way of Sony. Why? Here is paragraph 29, emphasis mine:

"We recognize there are substantial differences between the patent and copyright laws. But in both areas the contributory infringement doctrine is grounded on the recognition that adequate protection of a monopoly may require the courts to look beyond actual duplication of a device or publication to the products or activities that make such duplication possible. The staple article of commerce doctrine must strike a balance between a copyright holder‘s legitimate demand for effective -- not merely symbolic -- protection of the statutory monopoly, and the rights of others freely to engage in substantially unrelated areas of commerce. Accordingly, the sale of copying equipment, like the sale of other articles of commerce, does not constitute contributory infringement if the product is widely used for legitimate, unobjectionable purposes. Indeed, it need merely be capable of substantial noninfringing uses."

That’s the key point, one that will be significant in the case later. Since the Betamax was useful for substantial purposes that did not break copyright law, then it could not be held liable generally. For example, they focused on what they called "time-shifting" content with the Betamax. They meant that it was okay for someone to tape something on TV to watch later, or shift the time that they would watch it. The SC considered that fair use, and found Sony to not be contributorily liable for the copyright infringement of those who used it.

More tomorrow...


Kirk H. Sowell 2005-06-28 02:58:00

Further reading on this from the Wall Street Journal:
article on Grokster case
internet providers case