Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, Inc.
464 U.S. 417 (1984)
Sony developed the Video
Cassette Recorder (aka VCR) that allowed people to make copies of
television programs. A number of film and television studios, led by
Universal, sued, for contributory copyright infringement.
Universal argued that since
Sony was manufacturing a device that could potentially be used for
copyright infringement, they were thus liable for any infringement that
was committed by its purchasers.
Sony argued that they
weren't responsible for what users were doing with the VCR tapes.
The Trial Court found for
Sony. Universal appealed.
The Trial Court found that that
noncommercial home use recording was considered fair use, so there was no copyright
infringement, even if the tapes were
used to copy copyrighted programs.
The Appellate Court reversed.
The Appellate court found
that the main purpose of the VCR was for copyright infringement.
The US Supreme Court reversed
and found for Sony.
The US Supreme Court looked
to patent law (35 U.S.C. §271(c))
and found that one who sells a 'staple article' or commodity suitable for
substantial non-infringing use is not liable for contributory
Basically, if it could be
shown that a good number of people were using VCRs to tape programs they
were legally allowed to tape, then Sony was not a contributory
The Court found that the VCR
was capable of "commercially significant non-infringing uses."
The Court found that the use
of VCRs for 'time shifting' (where people tape a show so they can watch
it later) was fair use.
The Court looked to 17
U.S.C. §107(2) and found that time
shifting is a non-commercial use.
The Court looked to 17
U.S.C. §107(4) and found that home
taping didn't decrease television viewership, so it did not have an
effect on the potential market for the original work.
Of course this case was
decided back before there was a market for dvds of television shows.
Today a court may decide this issue differently.
The Court also noted that
the viewers had been invited to watch the shows for free when they were
first broadcast, so taping the show and watching it later didn't really
save them any money.
In a dissent it was argued
that just because a few people use VCRs in non-infringing ways, that
shouldn't shield Sony from liability for making a device that the vast
majority of people use for infringing uses.