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The Betamax Case

Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, 464 U.S. 417 (1984)

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The Supreme Court's ruling in Sony v. Universal Studios (aka the Betamax case) is a landmark copyright precedent that has sheltered a wide array of technology innovators from lawsuits at the hands of the entertainment industries. In 1984, the Court held that a company -- in this instance, a VCR manufacturer -- was not liable for creating a technology that some customers may use for copyright infringing purposes, so long as the technology is capable of substantial non-infringing uses. In other words, where a technology has many uses, the public cannot be denied the lawful uses just because some (or many or most) may use the product to infringe copyrights.

The Betamax case and its descendants go to a crucial question: will innovators be forced by copyright law to ask permission from entertainment moguls before building new technologies? If Sony had asked permission from Hollywood, the Betamax might never have made it to market (or might have had very different features). It's thanks to the Betamax ruling that the makers of VCRs and every other technology capable of infringing and non-infringing uses (e.g., personal computers, CD burners, the TiVo DVR, Apple's iPod, and Web browsers) can continue to sell their wares without fear of lawsuits from copyright owners.

The entertainment industry's lawsuit against peer-to-peer software companies in MGM v. Grokster was a frontal assault on the Betamax ruling. By suing the makers of Morpheus, Grokster, and KaZaA software products, the entertainment industry aimed to set a precedent to use against other technology companies (P2P and otherwise).

In its June 27, 2005 ruling, the Supreme Court refused to overturn the Betamax precedent, but it also refused to clarify it. Instead, the Court punted on the hard questions by crafting a new doctrine of copyright infringement liability called "inducement." For more details on the Grokster case and what it means for the future of innovation, see Remedying Grokster by Fred von Lohmann, EFF's senior intellectual property attorney.

In its current lawsuits, the entertainment industry continues to try to chip away at Betamax. It is remarkable to compare the arguments the entertainment industry has made against P2P to the ones it made against the VTR (what they called VCRs back then) in 1982. A comparison makes it clear that the entertainment industry has been trying to roll back the protections established more than twenty years earlier in the Betamax case. For example:

It is remarkable to compare the arguments the entertainment industry is making against P2P in 2005 to the ones it made against the VTR (what they called VCRs back then) in 1982. A comparison makes it clear that the entertainment industry is in 2005 trying to roll back the protections established more than twenty years earlier in the Betamax case. For example:

(All quotes drawn from Petitioners' brief in MGM v. Grokster [PDF] in 2005 and Respondents' brief in the Betamax case [PDF] in 1982):


"By design, Grokster and StreamCast are used overwhelmingly for infringement."


"The district court expressly found pervasive librarying activities, and the uncontroverted survey evidence established that 69% to 75% of all Betamax owners maintain large libraries of off-the-air recordings and that the vast majority of programs in those libraries are copyrighted motion pictures.... This same survey shows that less than 9% of all recordings consists of religious (0%), educational (1.6%), and sports (7.3%) programs -- the type of material purportedly owned by most of the limited number of witnesses who testified that they did not object to VTR copying."

The Supreme Court nevertheless held that the use of the Betamax to record programs authorized for recording, less than 9% of uses, was a substantial noninfringing use sufficient to protect Sony from copyright liability.


"...Grokster and StreamCast have chosen not to implement available technologies that would block or filter infringing content on their networks."


"[Noninfringing] uses could also continue if petitioners were directed to devise a technological means to prevent VTR copying only of programs owned by respondents and others who object to such copying."

Disney and Universal claimed that an inexpensive "jamming" circuit could be inexpensively added to the Betamax that would respond to a "broadcast flag" embedded in TV broadcasts.


"Unlike the defendant in Sony Betamax, Grokster and StreamCast have done far more than merely sell a product with the constructive knowledge that some buyers might put it to infringing use."


"Since petitioners' advertisements, brochures and instruction manuals unquestionably cause, urge, encourage and aid VTR purchasers to infringe respondents' copyrights, petitioners are liable by analogy to [patent law] notwithstanding their claim that VTRs are staple articles of commerce.... [P]etitioners' advertisements "exhort" Betamax purchasers to record "favorite shows," "movies," "classic movies" and "novels for television" and to "build a library."


"Infringing content is the powerful magnet that draws users to respondents' services and fuels their profits.... [T]here is no evidence that these noninfringing uses would attract a single user, much less enough users to create commercially sustainable networks."


"Unlike cameras, typewriters and Xerox machines, whose primary market is derived from non-infringing uses, there would be little, if any, market for VTRs if they could not be used for infringing purposes. Petitioners' unwillingness to devise a technological means of preventing copying of copyrighted works makes plain that without the ability to make unconsented copies of the copyrighted motion pictures owned by respondents and amici, there would be little if any market for VTRs."
On which item have the courts ruled that manufacturers and retailers be held responsible for having supplied the equipment?

Supreme Court Documents

Petitioners Briefs (Sony)

Amicus Briefs Supporting Petitioners

Respondents Brief (Universal & Disney)

Amicus Briefs Supporting Respondents

Petitioners Reply Brief

Respondents Brief in Opposition to Writ of Certiorari

Amicus Briefs Opposing Petitioners Writ of Certiorari

Petition for Writ of Certiorari

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Documents

District Court, Central District of Calif. Documents

More about Betamax