Copyright Battles Are About Controlling New Technologies
from the seems-like-it dept
Copyright guru William Patry has a really interesting post remembering Harvey Schein, the man who oversaw the American launch of the Betamax VCR as head of Sony’s American division. That was, of course, the product that produced the famous Sony decision upholding the legality of the VCR and its “record” button. The Betamax precedent is widely seen as a foundation of the modern consumer electronics industry because it gives manufacturers confidence that they can build useful media tools without worrying about liability should their customers use the tools to infringe copyright.
Patry mentions an aspect of the case that I hadn’t realized before: MCA/Universal, the lead plaintiff, wasn’t just worried that the VCR owners would tape shows rather than watching re-runs. It was also planning to release a laser disc technology called Disco Vision. MCA/Universal apparently worried that a successful Betamax VCR would have undercut the market for laser discs. Schein is quoted as saying “I don’t think it was accidental that the company that took the lead in fighting the videocassette held all the patents on the videosdisc.”
This will sound eerily familiar to anyone familiar with more recent copyright controversies. For more than three decades, Hollywood and the recording industry have consistently tried to use copyright law to stop any technology they didn’t control. In 1992, the music industry persuaded Congress to mandate cumbersome DRM for digital audio formats, stunting the development of that technology. In 1998, the music industry unsuccessfully tried to sue the MP3 player out of existence. Also in 1998, at the behest of the copyright lobby Congress enacted the DMCA, which gave content creators unprecedented control over the design of technological devices. Hollywood has used the DMCA to effectively outlaw set-top boxes that act as DVD jukeboxes.
Of course, in every one of these cases, the copyright lobby’s arguments have focused on the threat of “piracy.” But when they’ve won, the practical result has been to give content creators the power to control the evolution of media devices. And when Hollywood and the record labels control technological progress, the results aren’t pretty.