Featured Story: Mister Rogers Goes to Washington
In 1984, a landmark case laid down a controversial law regarding technology, intellectual property and copyright infringement. The unlikely hero in the legal battle to preserve the right to record content using a VCR was none other than TV’s besweatered children’s broadcaster, Mister Rogers.
For many years in the pre-DVD, pre-streaming era, the Betamax, Sony’s prototype videotape player-recorder, was a punch line. A piece of technology that was quickly superseded by the VHS, it limped along in the shadows for two decades. And yet, it was the Betamax that gave name to a court case that has played a pivotal role in both technological progress and copyright law over the last thirty years. Here’s a look back at the “Betamax Case,” including the role Mister Rogers played in the Supreme Court’s decision.
Like many other cool electronic products, the Betamax came from Japan. In late 1975, it was introduced to the U.S. by Sony, who touted its ability to “time-shift” television programming. In an era when most viewers still had to get up off the couch to change channels manually, this innovation was as futuristic as it sounded. But while the public was wowed by the idea, the major entertainment corporations were not. Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions filed a lawsuit in 1976 to halt the sale of the Betamax, claiming that film and TV producers would lose millions of dollars from unauthorized duplication and distribution of their copyrighted content.
When the case finally went to trial in 1979, the U. S. District court ruled in favor of Sony, stating that taping programs for entertainment or time-shifting was fair use, and did not infringe on copyright. Further, there was no proof that the practice did any economic harm to the television or motion picture industry. But Universal, unhappy with the verdict, appealed in 1981, and the ruling was reversed. With large sums of money and copyright ownership at stake, the Betamax case arrived at the Supreme Court in 1983. By this point, nearly 50 percent of all homes in America had a VCR (VHS replaced Betamax) and sales of videocassettes were competing with theatrical box office. Universal Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America, nicknamed the “Betamax Case,” was argued for a year.
During the controversial court case, the key testimonial came from Mister Rogers, who defended the VCR and Sony, saying:
“I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the ‘Neighborhood’ off-the-air … they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ … I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sony and cited Rogers’ comments: “He testified that he had absolutely no objection to home taping for noncommercial use and expressed the opinion that it is a real service to families to be able to record children’s programs and to show them at appropriate times.”
Now, despite the popularity of legal movie and TV streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, P2P file sharing continues. Cases against file-sharing sites like Napster bring to light the the same points of law established decades earlier when Mister Rogers went to Washington.
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