Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios
The Court has adopted an approach very different from the one I have outlined. It is my view that the Court’s approach alters dramatically the doctrines of fair use and contributory infringement as they have been developed by Congress and the courts. Should Congress choose to respond to the Court’s decision, the old doctrines can be resurrected. As it stands, however, the decision today erodes much of the coherence that these doctrines have struggled to achieve.
The Court’s disposition of the case turns on its conclusion that time-shifting is a fair use. Because both parties agree that time- shifting is the primary use of VTR’s, that conclusion, if correct, would settle the issue of Sony’s liability under almost any definition of contributory infringement. The Court concludes that time-shifting is fair use for two reasons. Each is seriously flawed.
The Court’s first reason for concluding that time-shifting is fair use is its claim that many copyright holders have no objection to time-shifting, and that "respondents have no right to prevent other copyright holders from authorizing it for their programs." Ante, at 442. The Court explains that a finding of contributory infringement would "inevitably frustrate the interests of broadcasters in reaching the portion of their audience that is available only through time-shifting." [p.494] Ante, at 446. Such reasoning, however, simply confuses the question of liability with the difficulty of fashioning an appropriate remedy. It may be that an injunction prohibiting the sale of VTR’s would harm the interests of copyright holders who have no objection to others making copies of their programs. But such concerns should and would be taken into account in fashioning an appropriate remedy once liability has been found. Remedies may well be available that would not interfere with authorized time- shifting at all. The Court of Appeals mentioned the possibility of a royalty payment that would allow VTR sales and time-shifting to continue unabated, and the parties may be able to devise other narrowly tailored remedies. Sony may be able, for example, to build a VTR that enables broadcasters to scramble the signal of individual programs and "jam" the unauthorized recording of them. Even were an appropriate remedy not available at this time, the Court should not misconstrue copyright holders’ rights in a manner that prevents enforcement of them when, through development of better techniques, an appropriate remedy becomes available. n45
n45 Even if concern with remedy were appropriate at the liability stage, the Court’s use of the District Court’s findings is somewhat cavalier. The Court relies heavily on testimony by representatives of professional sports leagues to the effect that they have no objection to VTR recording. The Court never states, however, whether the sports leagues are copyright holders, and if so, whether they have exclusive copyrights to sports broadcasts. It is therefore unclear whether the sports leagues have authority to consent to copying the broadcasts of their events.
Assuming that the various sports leagues do have exclusive copyrights in some of their broadcasts, the amount of authorized time-shifting still would not be overwhelming. Sony’s own survey indicated that only 7.3% of all Betamax use is to record sports events of all kinds. Tr. 2353, Defendants’ Exh. OT, Table 20. Because Sony’s witnesses did not represent all forms of sports events, moreover, this figure provides only a tenuous basis for this Court to engage in factfinding of its own.
The only witness at trial who was clearly an exclusive copyright owner and who expressed no objection to unauthorized time-shifting was the owner of the copyright in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But the Court cites no evidence in the record to the effect that anyone makes VTR copies of that program. The simple fact is that the District Court made no findings on the amount of authorized time-shifting that takes place. The Court seems to recognize this gap in its reasoning, and phrases its argument as a hypothetical. The Court states: "If there are millions of owners of VTR’s who make copies of televised sports events, religious broadcasts, and educational programs such as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and if the proprietors of those programs welcome the practice," the sale of VTR’s "should not be stifled" in order to protect respondents’ copyrights. Ante, at 446 (emphasis supplied). Given that the Court seems to recognize that its argument depends on findings that have not been made, it seems that a remand is inescapable.
[p.495] The Court’s second stated reason for finding that Sony is not liable for contributory infringement is its conclusion that even unauthorized time-shifting is fair use. Ante, at 447 et seq. This conclusion is even more troubling. The Court begins by suggesting that the fair use doctrine operates as a general "equitable rule of reason." That interpretation mischaracterizes the doctrine, and simply ignores the language of the statute. Section 107 establishes the fair use doctrine "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, . . . scholarship, or research." These are all productive uses. It is true that the legislative history states repeatedly that the doctrine must be applied flexibly on a case-by-case basis, but those references were only in the context of productive uses. Such a limitation on fair use comports with its purpose, which is to facilitate the creation of new works. There is no indication that the fair use doctrine has any application for purely personal consumption on the scale involved in this case, n46 and the Court’s application of it here deprives fair use of the major cohesive force that has guided evolution of the doctrine in the past.
n46 As has been explained, some uses of time-shifting, such as copying an old newspaper clipping for a friend, are fair use because of their de minimis effect on the copyright holder. The scale of copying involved in this case, of course, is of an entirely different magnitude, precluding application of such an exception.
[p.496] Having bypassed the initial hurdle for establishing that a use is fair, the Court then purports to apply to time-shifting the four factors explicitly stated in the statute. The first is "the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes." Section 107(1). The Court confidently describes time-shifting as a noncommercial, nonprofit activity. It is clear, however, that personal use of programs that have been copied without permission is not what Section 107(1) protects. The intent of the section is to encourage users to engage in activities the primary benefit of which accrues to others. Time-shifting involves no such humanitarian impulse. It is likewise something of a mischaracterization of time-shifting to describe it as noncommercial in the sense that that term is used in the statute. As one commentator has observed, time- shifting is noncommercial in the same sense that stealing jewelry and wearing it -- instead of reselling it -- is noncommercial. n47 Purely consumptive uses are certainly not what the fair use doctrine was designed to protect, and the awkwardness of applying the statutory language to time- shifting only makes clearer that fair use was designed to protect only uses that are productive.
n47 Home Recording of Copyrighted Works: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice of the House Committee on the Judiciary, 97th Cong., 2d Sess., pt. 2, p. 1250 (1982) (memorandum of Prof. Laurence H. Tribe).
The next two statutory factors are all but ignored by the Court -- though certainly not because they have no applicability. The second factor -- "the nature of the copyrighted work" -- strongly supports the view that time- shifting is an infringing use. The rationale guiding application of this factor is that certain types of works, typically those involving "more of diligence than of originality or inventiveness," New York Times Co. v. Roxbury Data Interface, Inc., 434 F.Supp. 217, 221 (NJ 1977), require less copyright protection than other original works. Thus, for example, informational [p.497] works, such as news reports, that readily lend themselves to productive use by others, are less protected than creative works of entertainment. Sony’s own surveys indicate that entertainment shows account for more than 80% of the programs recorded by Betamax owners. n48
n48 See A Survey of Betamax Owners, Tr. 2353, Defendants’ Exh. OT, Table 20, cited in Brief for Respondents 52.
The third statutory factor -- "the amount and substantiality of the portion used" -- is even more devastating to the Court’s interpretation. It is undisputed that virtually all VTR owners record entire works, see 480 F.Supp., at 454, thereby creating an exact substitute for the copyrighted original. Fair use is intended to allow individuals engaged in productive uses to copy small portions of original works that will facilitate their own productive endeavors. Time-shifting bears no resemblance to such activity, and the complete duplication that it involves might alone be sufficient to preclude a finding of fair use. It is little wonder that the Court has chosen to ignore this statutory factor. n49
n49 The Court’s one oblique acknowledgment of this third factor, ante, at 447, and n. 30, seems to suggest that the fact that time-shifting involves copying complete works is not very significant because the viewers already have been asked to watch the initial broadcast free. This suggestion misses the point. As has been noted, a book borrowed from a public library may not be copied any more freely than one that has been purchased. An invitation to view a showing is completely different from an invitation to copy a copyrighted work.
The fourth factor requires an evaluation of "the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work." This is the factor upon which the Court focuses, but once again, the Court has misread the statute. As mentioned above, the statute requires a court to consider the effect of the use on the potential market for the copyrighted work. The Court has struggled mightily to show that VTR use has not reduced the value of the Studios’ copyrighted works in their present markets. Even if true, that showing only begins the proper inquiry. The development [p.498] of the VTR has created a new market for the works produced by the Studios. That market consists of those persons who desire to view television programs at times other than when they are broadcast, and who therefore purchase VTR recorders to enable them to time-shift. n50 Because time-shifting of the Studios’ copyrighted works involves the copying of them, however, the Studios are entitled to share in the benefits of that new market. Those benefits currently go to Sony through Betamax sales. Respondents therefore can show harm from VTR use simply by showing that the value of their copyrights would increase if they were compensated for the copies that are used in the new market. The existence of this effect is self-evident.
n50 The Court implicitly has recognized that this market is very significant. The central concern underlying the Court’s entire opinion is that there is a large audience who would like very much to be able to view programs at times other than when they are broadcast. Ante, at 446. The Court simply misses the implication of its own concerns.
Because of the Court’s conclusion concerning the legality of time-shifting, it never addresses the amount of noninfringing use that a manufacturer must show to absolve itself from liability as a contributory infringer. Thus, it is difficult to discuss how the Court’s test for contributory infringement would operate in practice under a proper analysis of time-shifting. One aspect of the test as it is formulated by the Court, however, particularly deserves comment. The Court explains that a manufacturer of a product is not liable for contributory infringement as long as the product is "capable of substantial noninfringing uses." Ante, at 442 (emphasis supplied). Such a definition essentially eviscerates the concept of contributory infringement. Only the most unimaginative manufacturer would be unable to demonstrate that a image-duplicating product is "capable" of substantial noninfringing uses. Surely Congress desired to prevent the sale of products that are used almost exclusively to infringe copyrights; [p.499] the fact that noninfringing uses exist presumably would have little bearing on that desire.
More importantly, the rationale for the Court’s narrow standard of contributory infringement reveals that, once again, the Court has confused the issue of liability with that of remedy. The Court finds that a narrow definition of contributory infringement is necessary in order to protect "the rights of others freely to engage in substantially unrelated areas of commerce." Ante, at 442. But application of the contributory infringement doctrine implicates such rights only if the remedy attendant upon a finding of liability were an injunction against the manufacture of the product in question. The issue of an appropriate remedy is not before the Court at this time, but it seems likely that a broad injunction is not the remedy that would be ordered. It is unfortunate that the Court has allowed its concern over a remedy to infect its analysis of liability.
The Court of Appeals, having found Sony liable, remanded for the District Court to consider the propriety of injunctive or other relief. Because of my conclusion as to the issue of liability, I, too, would not decide here what remedy would be appropriate if liability were found. I concur, however, in the Court of Appeals’ suggestion that an award of damages, or continuing royalties, or even some form of limited injunction, may well be an appropriate means of balancing the equities in this case. n51 Although I express no view on the merits [p.500] of any particular proposal, I am certain that, if Sony were found liable in this case, the District Court would be able to fashion appropriate relief. The District Court might conclude, of course, that a continuing royalty or other equitable relief is not feasible. The Studios then would be relegated to statutory damages for proven instances of infringement. But the difficulty of fashioning relief, and the possibility that complete relief may be unavailable, should not affect our interpretation of the statute.
n51 Other nations have imposed royalties on the manufacturers of products used to infringe copyright. See, e. g., Copyright Laws and Treaties of the World (UNESCO/BNA 1982) (English translation), reprinting Federal Act on Copyright in Works of Literature and Art and on Related Rights (Austria), Section@ 42(5)-(7), and An Act dealing with Copyright and Related Rights (Federal Republic of Germany), Art. 53(5). A study produced for the Commission of European Communities has recommended that these requirements "serve as a pattern" for the European community. A. Dietz, Copyright Law in the European Community 135 (1978). While these royalty systems ordinarily depend on the existence of authors’ collecting societies, see id., at 119, 136, such collecting societies are a familiar part of our copyright law. See generally Broadcast Music, Inc. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 441 U.S. 1, 4-5 (1979). Fashioning relief of this sort, of course, might require bringing other copyright owners into court through certification of a class or otherwise.
Like so many other problems created by the interaction of copyright law with a new technology, "[there] can be no really satisfactory solution to the problem presented here, until Congress acts." Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S., at 167 (dissenting opinion). But in the absence of a congressional solution, courts cannot avoid difficult problems by refusing to apply the law. We must "take the Copyright Act . . . as we find it," Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 U.S., at 401-402, and "do as little damage as possible to traditional copyright principles . . . until the Congress legislates." Id., at 404 (dissenting opinion).