The Betamax Case

The Betamax Case is the most influential decisions concerning the development and distribution of the video cassette recorder. The case decided whether or not the VCR could be used by the consumer who with the new technology was able watch a television program whenever s/he decided to. Without the Supreme Court's decision, the VCR technology would not have grown to a household item that is today found in 98% of the population of the United States homes. Not only did the Betamax Case impact the consumer, but the distribution companies also changed their tactics of film consumption. Basically, the Betamax Case legitimized the VCR technology and allowed the expansion of video into the American culture.

The Betamax Case arose along with the invention of the VCR. In 1975, the Sony Corporation released a reliable and cheap VCR and TV system called the Betamax. The Betamax VCR, similar to the earlier U-Matic and Cartrivision systems used a cartridge videocassette tape that could record broadcast television. Unlike the earlier Cartrivision system, the Betamax's 1/2-inch videocassette tape was high in quality and did not deteriorate with time. Also, at $2,300 (TV included) the Betamax was affordable to the average citizen where the industrial U-Matic was not. Betamax had one more advantage over the competition in that it was small in size unlike the competing systems.

The major use of the Betamax system was in its ability to allow consumer to time-shift network television. Instead of being forced to watch a TV show when the network decided to air it, the Betamax user could now control the programming schedule. Not only did the VCR allow the consumer to have the ability to time-shift, but zipping through the commercials was now also possible. Instead of being forced to watch television's commercials, the VCR user could fast forward through them. This, however, brought up a major conflict with the television industry's market that is based upon these commercials and one year after Sony's release of the Betamax, the major film studios began to take action.

MCA/Universal along with the Walt Disney corporation brought up a lawsuit in 1976 that argued that Sony's Betamax infringed on copyright laws. By copying television programs and being able to zip through the commercials, the consumer paid nothing for the studio's products (which was normally paid for through commercials). The VCR industry seemed not to be stopped by the impending lawsuit and in 1977 marked a pivotal year in the technology's development and expansion.

1977 saw the first competition between VCR formats as JVC release their VHS system, and in the same year Andre Blay created the Video Club of America that sold films from 20th Century Fox on Videotape. At first Sony won the lawsuit and the VCR seemed as though it would continue to exist, but in 1981 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California decided for MCA/Universal and Disney. Case #81-1687 basically outlawed the VCR's home use because of copyright infringement. However, this was not the end of the court process and Sony appealed the decision to the Supreme Court where it went in January 1983.