KC Johnson

The Rise and Fall of Rights-Related Liberalism

Battles over foreign policy and regulation were the key constitutional issues from the late 1970s and early 1980s. On the regulation front, a central target was the phone company (AT&T [not the AT&T that exists today, which is the former Cingular]), whose monopolistic hold was lampooned by Lily Tomlin–as the “high-school graduate” operator Ernestine Tomlin–on the TV show Laugh-In.

For the reading, please read Kyvig, Explicit and Authentic Acts, pp. 394-425.

If you are interested in more short clips from Nixon’s decision to appoint Rehnquist, I have put together this page, with transcripts.

Finally, our moot court today is a key technology-related case, Sony v. Universal Studios. The syllabus for the case is below. (The VTR was an early version of VCR’s.)

Facts of the Case:

Sony Corporation of America manufactured and sold the “Betamax” home video tape recorder (VTR). Universal City Studios owned the copyrights to television programs broadcast on public airwaves. Universal sued Sony for copyright infringement, alleging 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. Universal sought monetary damages, an equitable accounting of profits, and an injunction against the manufacturing and marketing of the VTR’s. The District Court denied all relief, holding that the noncommercial home use recording of material broadcast over the public airwaves was a fair use of copyrighted works and did not constitute copyright infringement. Moreover, the court concluded that Sony could not be held liable as contributory infringers even if the home use of a VTR was considered an infringing use. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held Sony liable for contributory infringement.

Decision: 5 votes for Sony Corp, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: 17 U.S.C. 102


Does Sony’s sale of “Betamax” video tape recorders to the general public constitute contributory infringement of copyrighted public broadcasts under the Copyright Act?



No. In a 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court held that “[t]he 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. Justice Stevens wrote for the Court that “[t]he sale of copying equipment…does not constitute contributory infringement if the product is widely used for legitimate, unobjectionable purposes, or, indeed, is merely capable of substantial noninfringing uses.” 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.

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