FAQ: Betamax--tech's favorite ruling

A 1984 Supreme Court decision legalized the VCR and provided much of the legal context for today's consumer electronics industry.

On Tuesday morning, lawyers from Hollywood and the technology industry will meet at the U.S. Supreme Court to argue over the fate of peer-to-peer software. But they'll be spending much of their time talking about the VCR.

At the core of the file-swapping dispute is an interpretation of the 20-year-old decision that made Sony's Betamax legal to sell in the United States. Much of the subsequent consumer electronics industry has been built with that decision in mind, and now companies are worried that it's open for review.

The following list of frequently asked questions is a layman's guide to why the Betamax ruling matters today.

Isn't Tuesday's Supreme Court case about Grokster and file-swapping? What's all this about Betamax?
Two lower federal courts have ruled that file-swapping software companies--in this case, Grokster and Morpheus parent StreamCast Networks--aren't legally liable for the copyright infringement that happens on their peer-to-peer networks. For support, both courts pointed to the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that said Sony Betamax VCRs could be legally sold.

Many people inside the technology industry believe that the Betamax decision laid the foundation for much of the subsequent computer and consumer electronics industry. Some worry that a new ruling on the issue could change the legal ground rules for technology businesses.

How would my life be different without the Betamax decision?
The Betamax ruling established that it was possible to record media at home, as long as it was for personal use. It made sure that companies producing recording devices couldn't be sued, even if some people used them in illegal ways. If Betamax had gone the other way, the explosion in VCRs, rental movies, home DVDs and digital video recorders couldn't have happened, or would likely have been slower and more expensive.

The case also let personal computers, which can digitize and record audio and video, develop without restrictions.

What started the fight?
Sony released the Betamax video recorder for the United States market in 1976. Universal City Studios and Walt Disney Productions promptly sued Sony, contending that recording video at home was copyright infringement.

Why did they sue Sony, instead of the people making the recordings?
The studios made an argument called "contributory copyright infringement," saying that Sony was responsible for making large-scale copying possible.

What were video recorders actually being used for?
The case largely took place before the tape rental market had taken off. Surveys by Sony and the studios showed that the primary use for VCRs, at least in 1978, was recording TV content so it could be watched later.

Was recording a show at home actually illegal?
At the time, it wasn't clear. The studios said home recording was illegal if permission hadn't been granted beforehand. Some shows explicitly

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