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. Sony appealed.
    • 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 copyright infringement.
      • 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 copyright infringer.
    • 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.