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Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.

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Michael Jin

on 18 December 2013

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Transcript of Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.

Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.
(the Betamax case)

Wavering of the Justice
After hearing oral arguments in the case, the Supreme Court was conflicted. The majority of justices were initially going to affirm the Ninth Circuit’s decision. Justice Blackmun was assigned to write a majority opinion, while Justice John Paul Stevens drafted a dissenting opinion. Sensing that some members of the Court might be persuaded to change their votes, Stevens wrote a dissent that read like a majority opinion, and could be changed to one with the substitution of a few words.
The Big Turnaround
Justice Brennan was wavering on affirming based on the presence of non-infringing uses of the technology, and Justice O'Connor, also initially inclined to affirm the Ninth Circuit, was unable to come to terms with Blackmun's argument, believing that the actual harm must be provable.Stevens therefore adjusted his draft because of the positions taken by Brennan and O'Connor. In so doing, he shifted the vote of the Court from a 6-3 majority for affirming the Ninth Circuit to a 5-4 majority for reversing the Ninth Circuit.
Way to the Supreme Court
Two years later, the District Court ruled for Sony, on the basis that noncommercial home use recording was considered fair use, that access to free public information is a First Amendment public interest.
However, this ruling was reversed in part by the Ninth Circuit Court, which held Sony liable for contributory infringement. The court also held that Betamax was not a staple article because its main purpose was copying.
by Michael Jin
3rd Block

In the 1970s, Sony developed the Betamax video tape recording device. Companies like Universal Studio, which owned the copyrights to television programs broadcast, worried about this development. At the time, U.S. Congress was in the final stages of a major revision of copyright law, and would not undertake any new protections for the film industry. The companies therefore sued Sony and its distributors in California District Court in 1976, alleging that because Sony was manufacturing a device that could be used for copyright infringement, they were thus liable for any infringement committed by its purchasers.

What is the issue?
Immediately after their loss in the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs asked Congress to pass legislation that would protect them from home copying. However, in the 8 years that had passed, the home recording devices had become so widespread that Congress doesn't want to take any actions to the significant population of VCR owners. Congress also noted the increased profits for film studios in the home video rental and sales market.
Rather than destroying film studios, videotape sales became increasingly important to the film companies' revenue. By 1995, more than half of Hollywood's American revenue came from home video compared to less than a quarter from movie theaters. The VCR, instead of being a killer, became arguably the savior of the filming industry.
Will companies' profit and copyright be demaged by the development of this device?
The Argument
Universal alleged that because consumers used Sony's Betamax to record Universal's copyrighted works, Sony was liable for the copyright infringement allegedly committed by those consumers in violation of the Copyright Act.
Does Sony's sale of "Betamax" video tape recorders to the general public constitute contributory infringement of copyrighted public broadcasts under the Copyright Act?
The Court held that "the sale of the VTR's to the general public does not constitute contributory infringement of Universal's copyrights." The Court concluded that there was a significant likelihood that a substantial number of copyright holders who license their works for free public broadcasts would not object to having their broadcasts time-shifted by private viewers and that Universal failed to show that time-shifting would cause non-minimal harm to the potential market for, or the value of, their copyrighted works.
Does copy that exists in the form of videotape a infringing copy, or is it a example of fair use?
Sony argued that the manufacture of the home recording device is legal. The home recording is considered a fair use, and Sony should not be responsible for the misuse by certain consumers that results in the infringement of the copyright.
For the dissenting minority, Justice Blackmun expressed the views that taping a copyrighted television program is infringement and that the recorder manufacturers were guilty of inducing and materially contributing to the infringement.
"SONY CORP v. UNIVERSAL CITY STUDIOS." Sony Corp v. Universal City Studios. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
Discussion Questions
Is selling guns a form of contributory murder? Should it be prohibited?
Is selling recorders a form of contributory infringement of copyright? Do you agree with the Supreme court's decision?
Is there any difference between the two? Why would the justices had such conflict with one, while the other one is protected by the Bill of Rights?
The Betamax Case. N.d. Photograph. EFF:. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
"Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios." TheFreeDictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
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