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Sony v. Universal Studios may be the most famous of all copyright cases. People who know nothing about copyright know that the Sony-Betamax case held that home videotaping of television programs is fair use. Paradoxically, although the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case to decide whether the copyright law permitted consumers to engage in private home copying of television programs, the majority ended up crafting its analysis to avoid answering that question definitively. Instead, it ruled that even if consumers sometimes violated the copyright law when they taped television programs off the air, that violation did not make the manufacturer and seller of the copying equipment they used liable for copyright infringement. That was so, the Court ruled, because some of the time, home videotaping was authorized by the programs’ copyright owners, and some of the time, home videotaping qualified as fair use. Since videotape recorders could be used for legitimate as well as infringing copying, making and selling the devices did not subject the Sony Corporation to liability.


Reproduced with permission.