U.S. Supreme Court
SONY CORP. v. UNIVERSAL CITY STUDIOS, INC., 464
U.S. 417 (1984)
Argued January 18, 1983 Reargued October 3, 1983
Decided January 17, 1984
Petitioner Sony Corp. manufactures
home video tape recorders (VTR's), and markets them through retail
establishments, some of which are also petitioners. Respondents own the
copyrights on some of the television programs that are broadcast on the
public airwaves. Respondents brought an action against petitioners in
Federal District Court, alleging that VTR consumers had been recording
some of respondents' copy-righted works that had been exhibited on
commercially sponsored television and thereby infringed respondents'
copyrights, and further that petitioners were liable for such copyright
infringement because of their marketing of the VTR's. Respondents sought
money damages, an equitable accounting of profits, and an injunction
against the manufacture and marketing of the VTR's. The District Court
denied respondents all relief, holding that noncommercial home use
recording of material broadcast over the public airwaves was a fair use of
copyrighted works and did not constitute copyright infringement, and that
petitioners could not be held liable as contributory infringers even if
the home use of a VTR was considered an infringing use. The Court of
Appeals reversed, holding petitioners liable for contributory infringement
and ordering the District Court to fashion appropriate relief.
The sale of the VTR's to the general public does not
constitute contributory infringement of respondents' copyrights.
(a) The protection given to copyrights is wholly
statutory, and, in a case like this, in which Congress has not plainly
marked the course to be followed by the judiciary, this Court must be
circumspect in construing the scope of rights created by a statute that
never contemplated such a calculus of interests. Any individual may
reproduce a copyrighted work for a "fair use"; the copyright owner does
not possess the exclusive right to such a use.
(b) Kalem Co. v. Harper Brothers,
222 U.S. 55 , does not support respondents' novel theory that
supplying the "means" to accomplish an infringing activity and
encouraging that activity through advertisement are sufficient to
establish liability for copyright infringement. This case does not fall
in the category of those in which it is manifestly just to
impose vicarious liability because the "contributory" infringer
was in a position to control the use of copyrighted works by others and
had authorized the use without permission from the copyright owner.
Here, the only contact between petitioners and the users of the VTR's
occurred at the moment of sale. And there is no precedent for imposing
vicarious liability on the theory that petitioners sold the VTR's with
constructive knowledge that their customers might use the equipment to
make unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. The sale of copying
equipment, like the sale of other articles of commerce, does not
constitute contributory infringement if the product is widely used for
legitimate, unobjectionable purposes, or, indeed, is merely capable of
substantial noninfringing uses.
(c) The record and the District Court's findings
show (1) that there is a significant likelihood that substantial numbers
of copyright holders who license their works for broadcast on free
television would not object to having their broadcast time-shifted by
private viewers (i. e., recorded at a time when the VTR owner cannot
view the broadcast so that it can be watched at a later time); and (2)
that there is no likelihood that time-shifting would cause nonminimal
harm to the potential market for, or the value of, respondents'
copyrighted works. The VTR's are therefore capable of substantial
noninfringing uses. Private, noncommercial time-shifting in the home
satisfies this standard of noninfringing uses both because respondents
have no right to prevent other copyright holders from authorizing such
time-shifting for their programs, and because the District Court's
findings reveal that even the unauthorized home time-shifting of
respondents' programs is legitimate fair use.
JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the
Petitioners manufacture and sell home video tape
recorders. Respondents own the copyrights on some of the television
programs that are broadcast on the public airwaves. Some members of
the general public use video tape recorders sold by petitioners to record
some of these broadcasts, as well as a large number of other broadcasts.
The question presented is whether the sale of petitioners' copying
equipment to the general public violates any of the rights conferred upon
respondents by the Copyright Act.
Respondents commenced this copyright
infringement action against petitioners in the United States District
Court for the Central District of California in 1976. Respondents alleged
that some individuals had used Betamax video tape recorders (VTR's) to
record some of respondents' copyrighted works which had been exhibited on
commercially sponsored television and contended that these individuals had
thereby infringed respondents' copyrights. [Betamax was a
technological rival of VCR's, which by the end of the 1980s had lost the
competition.] Respondents further maintained that petitioners were
liable for the copyright infringement allegedly committed by Betamax
consumers because of petitioners' marketing of the Betamax VTR's.
Respondents sought no relief against any Betamax consumer. Instead, they
sought money damages and an equitable accounting of profits from
petitioners, as well as an injunction against the manufacture and
marketing of Betamax VTR's . . .
An explanation of our rejection of
respondents' unprecedented attempt to impose copyright liability upon the
distributors of copying equipment requires a quite detailed recitation of
the findings of the District Court. In summary, those findings reveal that
the average member of the public uses a VTR principally to record a
program he cannot view as it is being televised and then to watch it once
at a later time. This practice, known as "time-shifting," enlarges the
television viewing audience. For that reason, a significant amount of
television programming may be used in this manner without objection from
the owners of the copyrights on the programs. For the same reason, even
the two respondents in this case, who do assert objections to
time-shifting in this litigation, were unable to prove that the practice
has impaired the commercial value of their copyrights or has created any
likelihood of future harm. Given these findings, there is no basis in the
Copyright Act upon which respondents can hold petitioners liable for
distributing VTR's to the general public. The Court of Appeals' holding
that respondents are entitled to enjoin the distribution of VTR's, to
collect royalties on the sale of such equipment, or to obtain other
relief, if affirmed, would enlarge the scope of respondents' statutory
monopolies to encompass control over an article of commerce that is not
the subject of copyright protection. Such an expansion of the copyright
privilege is beyond the limits of the grants authorized by Congress . . .
Article I, 8, of the Constitution provides:
"The Congress shall have Power . . . To Promote
the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times
to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective
Writings and Discoveries."
The monopoly privileges that Congress may authorize
are neither unlimited nor primarily designed to provide a special private
benefit. Rather, the limited grant is a means by which an important public
purpose may be achieved. It is intended to motivate the creative activity
of authors and inventors by the provision of a special reward, and to
allow the public access to the products of their genius after the limited
period of exclusive control has expired.
"The copyright law, like the patent statutes,
makes reward to the owner a secondary consideration. In Fox Film Corp.
v. Doyal, Chief Justice Hughes spoke as follows respecting the copyright
monopoly granted by Congress, `The sole interest of the United States
and the primary object in conferring the monopoly lie in the general
benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors.' It is said
that reward to the author or artist serves to induce release to the
public of the products of his creative genius." United States v.
Paramount Pictures, Inc.,
As the text of the Constitution
makes plain, it is Congress that has been assigned the task of defining
the scope of the limited monopoly that should be granted to authors or to
inventors in order to give the public appropriate access to their work
product. Because this task involves a difficult balance between the
interests of authors and inventors in the control and exploitation of
their writings and discoveries on the one hand, and society's competing
interest in the free flow of ideas, information, and commerce on the other
hand, our patent and copyright statutes have been amended repeatedly . . .
In a case like this, in which
Congress has not plainly marked our course, we must be circumspect in
construing the scope of rights created by a legislative enactment which
never contemplated such a calculus of interests . . .
If vicarious liability is to be
imposed on Sony in this case, it must rest on the fact that it has sold
equipment with constructive knowledge of the fact that its customers may
use that equipment to make unauthorized copies of copyrighted material . .
. The staple article of commerce doctrine must strike a balance between a
copyright holder's legitimate demand for effective - not merely symbolic -
protection of the statutory monopoly, and the rights of others freely to
engage in substantially unrelated areas of commerce. Accordingly, the sale
of copying equipment, like the sale of other articles of commerce, does
not constitute contributory infringement if the product is widely used for
legitimate, unobjectionable purposes. Indeed, it need merely be capable of
substantial noninfringing uses.
The question is thus whether the
Betamax is capable of commercially significant noninfringing uses. In
order to resolve that question, we need not explore all the different
potential uses of the machine and determine whether or not they would
constitute infringement. Rather, we need only consider whether on the
basis of the facts as found by the District Court a significant number of
them would be noninfringing. Moreover, in order to resolve this case we
need not give precise content to the question of how much use is
commercially significant. For one potential use of the Betamax plainly
satisfies this standard, however it is understood: private, noncommercial
time-shifting in the home. It does so both (A) because respondents have no
right to prevent other copyright holders from authorizing it for their
programs, and (B) because the District Court's factual findings reveal
that even the unauthorized home time-shifting of respondents' programs is
legitimate fair use.
. . .
In summary, the record and findings
of the District Court lead us to two conclusions. First, Sony demonstrated
a significant likelihood that substantial numbers of copyright holders who
license their works for broadcast on free television would not object to
having their broadcasts time-shifted by private viewers. And second,
respondents failed to demonstrate that time-shifting would cause any
likelihood of nonminimal harm to the potential market for, or the value
of, their copyrighted works. The Betamax is, therefore, capable of
substantial noninfringing uses. Sony's sale of such equipment to the
general public does not constitute contributory infringement of
One may search the Copyright Act in
vain for any sign that the elected representatives of the millions of
people who watch television every day have made it unlawful to copy a
program for later viewing at home, or have enacted a flat prohibition
against the sale of machines that make such copying possible.
It may well be that Congress will
take a fresh look at this new technology, just as it so often has examined
other innovations in the past. But it is not our job to apply laws that
have not yet been written. Applying the copyright statute, as it now
reads, to the facts as they have been developed in this case, the judgment
of the Court of Appeals must be reversed.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL,
JUSTICE POWELL, and JUSTICE REHNQUIST join, dissenting.
A restatement of the facts and
judicial history of this case is necessary, in my view, for a proper focus
upon the issues. Respondents' position is hardly so "unprecedented" in the
copyright law, nor does it really embody a "gross generalization," or a
"novel theory of liability," and the like, as the Court, in belittling
their claims, describes the efforts of respondents.
The introduction of the home
videotape recorder (VTR) upon the market has enabled millions of Americans
to make recordings of television programs in their homes, for future and
repeated viewing at their own convenience. While this practice has proved
highly popular with owners of television sets and VTR's, it understandably
has been a matter of concern for the holders of copyrights in the recorded
programs. A result is the present litigation, raising the issues whether
the home recording of a copyrighted television program is an infringement
of the copyright, and, if so, whether the manufacturers and distributors
of VTR's are liable as contributory infringers. I would hope that these
questions ultimately will be considered seriously and in depth by the
Congress and be resolved there, despite the fact that the Court's decision
today provides little incentive for congressional action. Our task in the
meantime, however, is to resolve these issues as best we can in the light
of ill-fitting existing copyright law.
It is no answer, of course, to refer
to and stress, as the Court does, this Court's "consistent deference to
Congress" whenever "major technological innovations" appear. Perhaps a
better and more accurate description is that the Court has tended to evade
the hard issues when they arise in the area of copyright law. I see no
reason for the Court to be particularly pleased with this tradition or to
continue it. Indeed, it is fairly clear from the legislative history of
the 1976 Act that Congress meant to change the old pattern and
enact a statute that would cover new technologies, as well as old.
. .. The making of even a single videotape
recording at home falls within this definition; the VTR user produces a
material object from which the copyrighted work later can be perceived.
Unless Congress intended a special exemption for the making of a single
copy for personal use, I must conclude that VTR recording is contrary to
the exclusive rights granted by 106(1) [of the 1976 act]. . . Neither the
statute nor its legislative history suggests any intent to create a
general exemption for a single copy made for personal or private use . . .
It may be tempting, as, in my view,
the Court today is tempted, to stretch the doctrine of fair use so as to
permit unfettered use of this new technology in order to increase access
to television programming. But such an extension risks eroding the
very basis of copyright law, by depriving authors of control over their
works and consequently of their incentive to create. Even in the context
of highly productive educational uses, Congress has avoided this
temptation; in passing the 1976 Act, Congress made it clear that
off-the-air videotaping was to be permitted only in very limited
situations. I cannot disregard these admonitions . . .
I therefore conclude that if a
significant portion of the product's use is noninfringing, the
manufacturers and sellers cannot be held contributorily liable for the
product's infringing uses. If virtually all of the product's use, however,
is to infringe, contributory liability may be imposed; if no one would buy
the product for noninfringing purposes alone, it is clear that the
manufacturer is purposely profiting from the infringement, and that
liability is appropriately imposed. In such a case, the copyright owner's
monopoly would not be extended beyond its proper bounds; the manufacturer
of such a product contributes to the infringing activities of others and
profits directly thereby, while
providing no benefit to the public sufficient to justify the infringement
. . .
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.
Although I express no view on the merits
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 . . .