KC Johnson

Confirmation Controversies

  • Steven Teles, “Transformative Bureaucracy: Reagan’s Lawyers and the Dynamics of Political Investment,” Studies in American Political Development (2009)
  • Vesla Weaver, “Frontlash: Race and the Development of Punitive Crime Policy,” Studies in American Political Development (2009)

People for the American Way ad against Bork confirmation:

  • Sony v. Universal City Studios (1984). Question: Can copyright law be applied to companies that produce devices (in this case, an early version of the VCR) that allow others to violate copyright standards?

(betamax machine: 

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners manufacture and sell home video tape recorders. Respondents own the copyrights on some of the television programs that are broadcast on the public airwaves. Some members of the general public use video tape recorders sold by petitioners to record some of these broadcasts, as well as a large number of other broadcasts. The question presented is whether the sale of petitioners’ copying equipment to the general public violates any of the rights conferred upon respondents by the Copyright Act.

Respondents commenced this copyright infringement action against petitioners in the United States District Court for the Central District of California in 1976. Respondents alleged that some individuals had used Betamax video tape recorders (VTR’s) to record some of respondents’ copyrighted works which had been exhibited on commercially sponsored television and contended that these individuals had thereby infringed respondents’ copyrights. Respondents further maintained that petitioners were liable for the copyright infringement allegedly committed by Betamax consumers because of petitioners’ marketing of the Betamax VTR’s. Respondents sought no relief against any Betamax consumer. Instead, they sought money damages and an equitable accounting of profits from petitioners, as well as an injunction against the manufacture and marketing of Betamax VTR’s.

. . . An explanation of our rejection of respondents’ unprecedented attempt to impose copyright liability upon the distributors of copying equipment requires a quite detailed recitation of the findings of the District Court. In summary, those findings reveal that the average member of the public uses a VTR principally to record a program he cannot view as it is being televised and then to watch it once at a later time. This practice, known as “time- shifting,” enlarges the television viewing audience. For that reason, a significant amount of television programming may be used in this manner without objection from the owners of the copyrights on the programs. For the same reason, even the two respondents in this case, who do assert objections to time-shifting in this litigation, were unable to prove that the practice has impaired the commercial value of their copyrights or has created any likelihood of future harm. Given these findings, there is no basis in the Copyright Act upon which respondents can hold petitioners liable for distributing VTR’s to the general public. The Court of Appeals’ holding that respondents are entitled to enjoin the distribution of VTR’s, to collect royalties on the sale of such equipment, or to obtain other relief, if affirmed, would enlarge the scope of respondents’ statutory monopolies to encompass control over an article of commerce that is not the subject of copyright protection. Such an expansion of the copyright privilege is beyond the limits of the grants authorized by Congress.

. . . In a case like this, in which Congress has not plainly marked our course, we must be circumspect in construing the scope of rights created by a legislative enactment which never contemplated such a calculus of interests. In doing so, we are guided by Justice Stewart’s exposition of the correct approach to ambiguities in the law of copyright: “The limited scope of the copyright holder’s statutory monopoly, like the limited copyright duration required by the Constitution, reflects a balance of competing claims upon the public interest: Creative work is to be encouraged and rewarded, but private motivation must ultimately serve the cause of promoting broad public availability of literature, music, and the other arts. The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an ‘author’s’ creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good. ‘The sole interest of the United States and the primary object in conferring the monopoly,’ this Court has said, ‘lie in the general benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors.’ When technological change has rendered its literal terms ambiguous, the Copyright Act must be construed in light of this basic purpose.”

. . . The two respondents in this case do not seek relief against the Betamax users who have allegedly infringed their copyrights. Moreover, this is not a class action on behalf of all copyright owners who license their works for television broadcast, and respondents have no right to invoke whatever rights other copyright holders may have to bring infringement actions based on Betamax copying of their works. As was made clear by their own evidence, the copying of the respondents’ programs represents a small portion of the total use of VTR’s. It is, however, the taping of respondents own copyrighted programs that provides them with standing to charge Sony with contributory infringement. To prevail, they have the burden of proving that users of the Betamax have infringed their copyrights and that Sony should be held responsible for that infringement.

. . . In summary, the record and findings of the District Court lead us to two conclusions. First, Sony demonstrated a significant likelihood that substantial numbers of copyright holders who license their works for broadcast on free television would not object to having their broadcasts time- shifted by private viewers. And second, respondents failed to demonstrate that time-shifting would cause any likelihood of nonminimal harm to the potential market for, or the value of, their copyrighted works. The Betamax is, therefore, capable of substantial noninfringing uses. Sony’s sale of such equipment to the general public does not constitute contributory infringement of respondent’s copyrights.

“The direction of Art. I is that Congress shall have the power to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. When, as here, the Constitution is permissive, the sign of how far Congress has chosen to go can come only from Congress.” Deepsouth Packing Co. v. Laitram Corp., 406 U.S. 518, 530, 92 S.Ct. 1700, 1707, 32 L.Ed.2d 273 (1972).

One may search the Copyright Act in vain for any sign that the elected representatives of the millions of people who watch television every day have made it unlawful to copy a program for later viewing at home, or have enacted a flat prohibition against the sale of machines that make such copying possible.

It may well be that Congress will take a fresh look at this new technology, just as it so often has examined other innovations in the past. But it is not our job to apply laws that have not yet been written.


A restatement of the facts and judicial history of this case is necessary, in my view, for a proper focus upon the issues. Respondents’ position is hardly so “unprecedented,” in the copyright law, nor does it really embody a “gross generalization,”  or a “novel theory of liability,”  and the like, as the Court, in belittling their claims, describes the efforts of respondents.

The introduction of the home videotape recorder (VTR) upon the market has enabled millions of Americans to make recordings of television programs in their homes, for future and repeated viewing at their own convenience. While this practice has proved highly popular with owners of television sets and VTR’s, it understandably has been a matter of concern for the holders of copyrights in the recorded programs. A result is the present litigation, raising the issues whether the home recording of a copyrighted television program is an infringement of the copyright, and, if so, whether the manufacturers and distributors of VTR’s are liable as contributory infringers. I would hope that these questions ultimately will be considered seriously and in depth by the Congress and be resolved there, despite the fact that the Court’s decision today provides little incentive for congressional action. Our task in the meantime, however, is to resolve these issues as best we can in the light of ill-fitting existing copyright law.

It is no answer, of course, to refer to and stress, as the Court does, this Court’s “consistent deference to Congress” whenever “major technological innovations” appear. Perhaps a better and more accurate description is that the Court has tended to evade the hard issues when they arise in the area of copyright law. I see no reason for the Court to be particularly pleased with this tradition or to continue it. Indeed, it is fairly clear from the legislative history of the 1976 Act that Congress meant to change the old pattern and enact a statute that would cover new technologies, as well as old.

. . . The making of a videotape recording for home viewing is an ordinary, rather than a productive, use of the Studios’ copyrighted works. The District Court found that ” Betamax owners use the copy for the same purpose as the original. They add nothing of their own.” Although applying the fair use doctrine to home VTR recording, as Sony argues, may increase public access to material broadcast free over the public airwaves, I think Sony’s argument misconceives the nature of copyright. Copyright gives the author a right to limit or even to cut off access to his work.  A VTR recording creates no public benefit sufficient to justify limiting this right. Nor is this right extinguished by the copyright owner’s choice to make the work available over the airwaves. Section 106 of the 1976 Act grants the copyright owner the exclusive right to control the performance and the reproduction of his work, and the fact that he has licensed a single television performance is really irrelevant to the existence of his right to control its reproduction. Although a television broadcast may be free to the viewer, this fact is equally irrelevant; a book borrowed from the public library may not be copied any more freely than a book that is purchased.

It may be tempting, as, in my view, the Court today is tempted, to stretch the doctrine of fair use so as to permit unfettered use of this new technology in order to increase access to television programming. But such an extension risks eroding the very basis of copyright law, by depriving authors of control over their works and consequently of their incentive to create. Even in the context of highly productive educational uses, Congress has avoided this temptation; in passing the 1976 Act, Congress made it clear that off-the-air videotaping was to be permitted only in very limited situations.

From the Studios’ perspective, the consequences of home VTR recording are the same as if a business had taped the Studios’ works off the air, duplicated the tapes, and sold or rented them to members of the public for home viewing. The distinction is that home VTR users do not record for commercial advantage; the commercial benefit accrues to the manufacturer and distributors of the Betamax.

. . . If a significant portion of the product’s use is noninfringing, the manufacturers and sellers cannot be held contributorily liable for the product’s infringing uses.If virtually all of the product’s use, however, is to infringe, contributory liability may be imposed; if no one would buy the product for noninfringing purposes alone, it is clear that the manufacturer is purposely profiting from the infringement, and that liability is appropriately imposed. In such a case, the copyright owner’s monopoly would not be extended beyond its proper bounds; the manufacturer of such a product contributes to the infringing activities of others and profits directly thereby, while providing no benefit to the public sufficient to justify the infringement.

Like so many other problems created by the interaction of copyright law with a new technology, “[t]here can be no really satisfactory solution to the problem presented here, until Congress acts.”  But in the absence of a congressional solution, courts cannot avoid difficult problems by refusing to apply the law. We must “take the Copyright Act . . . as we find it,”  and “do as little damage as possible to traditional copyright principles . . . until the Congress legislates.”

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