Today marks an important anniversary for our digital media era—an era that couldn’t have been foreseen thirty years ago, but nonetheless relies to a very great extent on a legal decision exactly thirty years old. Today is the 30th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that declared the Sony Betamax VCR was legal because “time shifting,” recording a program off the air to watch it later, was fair use, and thus the VCR had substantial non-infringing purposes. Ars Technica has a feature article looking at the context of the decision in greater detail.

This decision is crucial to our digital world because copying is so much of what digital does. Even though the copies made back then were analog, the principle is still the same in digital—a copy is a copy. Thus, when an appeals court ruled that MP3 players were legal because “space shifting” was fair use, it was relying on the Betamax decision. Though the decision was about Diamond Multimedia’s Rio MP3 player, it nonetheless paved the way for the iPad to come along a few years later—which led to the iPhone and Android, which led to the iPad and Nexus, and our entire mobile digital world.

It’s a decision that came up in the Cablevision case regarding the legality of cloud-based DVRs to record shows for consumers at the cable company rather than in the home. And it will likewise be important in the case of Aereo, which records TV broadcasts from individual micro-antennas so they can be streamed over the Internet.

Michael Robertson tried to argue that this was what his ill-fated service for streaming music over the Internet if you could prove you owned the CD did, without much success, and his later MP3Tunes music locker service attracted similar attention—even though Apple, Amazon, and Google all have their own such services now—and in much the same way as Robertson’s original service, they don’t even require you to upload the MP3s for songs they already have on file themselves.

In practically any case that involves making copies of media for personal use, you can bet this one comes up somewhere. So, anyway, Sony, thanks for sticking up for our right to copy, and giving us thirty great years of time and space shifting.

(Ironically, Sony would later join the media producers’ camp and try to prevent unauthorized copying of media, to the point of infecting thousands of computers with rootkit software. But for this brief shining moment at least, it was firmly on the side of the angels.)


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