Washington Law Review


In Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Sony Corp. of America, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit defined the scope of copyright protection afforded audiovisual material broadcast on public airways. The plaintiffs, Universal City Studios, Inc. and Walt Disney Productions, Inc., produced and owned the copyrights to thirty-two publicly broadcast motion pictures. The case arose when the defendant recorded these movies for private use on a Sony "Betamax" brand home videotape recorder (VTR). The plaintiffs sued this defendant for direct copyright infringement. They also sued the manufacturer, distributor, advertiser, and retail sellers of the Betamax VTR for contributory and vicarious infringement for their involvement in producing, distributing, promoting, and selling the instrumentality used to achieve the direct infringement. This Note begins by reviewing the doctrines of fair use and contributory infringement. It then analyzes the Sony decision, arguing that the Ninth Circuit should have applied the equitable doctrine of fair use more liberally. Further, it argues that the court should have accepted the analogous "staple item of commerce" theory from patent law as a defense to the contributory infringement claim. Eschewing rigid analysis as ill-suited to defining rights and liabilities arising from new VTR technology, the Note advocates a pragmatic application of the Copyright Act.

First Page