Copyright: Gone with the Betamax


The theory that economic incentives provide the most efficient means of encouraging production of works of art and science for the public benefit underlies the constitutional grant to authors and inventors of monopolistic rights in their creations. Ideally, the constitutional ends and means should work in harmony. In reality, however, the copyright statute is the result of an intricate process of balancing two competing interests: the author’s financial interest is weighted against the policy of disseminating copyrighted works for public enlightenment. Public access to and use of works protected by copyright is not merely permitted but encouraged to the extent that it does not impair the author’s motivation to create new works. Yet the interests of authors and the public are so compelling and so interwoven that it is often difficult to maintain a balance. The case of Universal City Studios, Inc. v. SONY Corporation of America (Betamax Case) confronts this classic dilemma of copyright policy.

The Betamax is a color videotape recorder that attaches to a television set and enables the user to record programs broadcast on television. The user can play them back at any time on a television screen. Programs can be taped while the user is viewing either the broadcast being taped or a different broadcast on another channel, or while the user is absent. The tapes may either be retained for future viewing, or erased and re-used. When the litigation concerning Betamax was initiated, only tapes with a one-hour capacity were available. Tapes for the Betamax of up to three hours are now on the market. A pause control makes it possible to delete commercials, although the viewer must be present to operate it.

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