Rewind thirty years

And just imagine what life would be like if it hadn’t happened this way:

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Sony Corp. v. Universal Studios decision, also known as the Betamax case, which paved the way for such innovations as your beloved DVR.

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that Sony could continue to sell its Betamax videocassette recorder, overruling the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judgement that held Sony liable for consumers’ copyright infringement.

The lawsuit, which began in California District Court in 1976, charged that because Sony manufactured a device that could be used for copyright infringement the company was liable for infringement committed by consumers of Betamax.

Justice John Paul Stevens’ majority opinion in the case deemed home videotaping legal in the United States. The ruling also bore an important principle that has been used time and time again in lawsuits — if a product has a substantial, legitimate use it can be sold, even if some consumers use it illegitimately.

Two things happened within five years of this decision:

  • Sony began building VHS VCRs under license from JVC (1988);
  • Sony became a content provider on its own, taking over Columbia Pictures (1989).

And if that court ruling had gone the other way? Sony might have had to sue itself.

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