FALL 2010
Course No.: 9200-710 (& 810)-001
Course ID:  85723 & 85725
Time: M, W 4:45-6:15 p.m.
Room TBD
Professor Jay Dratler, Jr.
Across from Room 231D (IP Alcove)
Home: 330-835-4537
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010  Jay Dratler, Jr.  
For permission, see CMI.

Sony Corp. of America v.

Universal City Studios, Inc. (Sony-Betamax)

464 U.S. 417, *, 104 S.Ct. 774, 78 L. Ed.2d 574, 224 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 736 (1984)
    [In this case, a number of producers of copyrighted television programs sued Sony, the maker of the first commercially successful video tape reecorder ["VTR"], for contributory infringement of their copyrights.  Their theory was that Sony, by making and selling its equipment, facilitated consumers' unlawful copying of their copyrighted television programs off the air.
    The copyright owners asserted no claims against consumers, who were the alleged primary or "direct" infringers.  Nor did the owners assert any claim for so-called "librarying," i.e., making tape recordings of television programs off the air for long-term collection in a library.  The sole challenged act of direct infringement was the much more common practice of "time-shifting," i.e., recording, for viewing at a later time, television programs that had been broadcast without charge over the public airways.
    The copyright owners argued that time-shifting constituted infringement of copyright, and that Sony had contributed to that infringement by providing the equipment that made it possible.  In a portion of the opinion omitted below, the Court held that private, noncommercial time-shifting is fair use, thus absolving consumers of liability as direct infringers.  This portion of the opinion provides the Court's legal analysis of Sony's liability for contributory infringement of copyright—an issue of first impression in this context.]
* * *


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." [*429]
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.

* * *

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.(1) [*430]

From its beginning, the law of copyright has developed in response to significant changes in technology.(2)  Indeed, it was the invention of a new form of copying equipment—the printing press—that gave rise to the original need for copyright protection.  Repeatedly, as new developments have [*431] occurred in this country, it has been the Congress that has fashioned the new rules that new technology made necessary.  Thus, long before the enactment of the Copyright Act of 1909, 35 Stat. 1075, it was settled that the protection given to copyrights is wholly statutory. . . .  (1834).  The remedies for infringement "are only those prescribed by Congress." Thompson v. Hubbard, 131 U.S. 123, 151 (1889).

The judiciary's reluctance to expand the protections afforded by the copyright without explicit legislative guidance is a recurring theme. . . .  Sound policy, as well as history, supports our consistent deference to Congress when major technological innovations alter the market for copyrighted materials. Congress has the constitutional authority and the institutional ability to accommodate fully the varied permutations of competing interests that are inevitably implicated by such new technology.

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. In doing so, we are guided by Justice Stewart's exposition of the correct approach to ambiguities in the law of copyright:
    "The limited scope of the copyright holder's statutory monopoly, like the limited copyright duration required by the Constitution, reflects a balance of competing claims upon the public interest:  Creative work is to be [*432] encouraged and rewarded, but private motivation must ultimately serve the cause of promoting broad public availability of literature, music, and the other arts. The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an 'author's' creative labor.  But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good. 'The sole interest of the United States and the primary object in conferring the monopoly,' this Court has said, 'lie in the general benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors.' Fox Film Corp. v. Doyal, 286 U.S. 123, 127. . . . When technological change has rendered its literal terms ambiguous, the Copyright Act must be construed in light of this basic purpose."
Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975) (footnotes omitted).

* * *

The two respondents in this case do not seek relief against the Betamax users who have allegedly infringed their copyrights. Moreover, this is not a class action on behalf of all copyright owners who license their works for television broadcast, and respondents have no right to invoke whatever rights other copyright holders may have to bring infringement actions based on Betamax copying of their works.(3) As was made clear by their own evidence, the copying of the respondents' programs represents a small portion of the total use of VTR's. It is, however, the taping of respondents' own copyrighted programs that provides them with standing to charge Sony with contributory infringement. To prevail, they have the burden of proving that users of the Betamax have infringed their copyrights and that Sony should be held responsible for that infringement.


The Copyright Act does not expressly render anyone liable for infringement committed by another.  In contrast, the [*435] Patent Act expressly brands anyone who "actively induces infringement of a patent" as an infringer, 35 U. S. C. § 271(b), and further imposes liability on certain individuals labeled "contributory" infringers, § 271(c).  The absence of such express language in the copyright statute does not preclude the imposition of liability for copyright infringements on certain parties who have not themselves engaged in the infringing activity.(4)  For vicarious liability is imposed in virtually all areas of the law, and the concept of contributory infringement is merely a species of the broader problem of identifying the circumstances in which it is just to hold one individual accountable for the actions of another.

Such circumstances were plainly present in Kalem Co. v. Harper Brothers, 222 U.S. 55 (1911), the copyright decision of this Court on which respondents place their principal reliance.  In Kalem, the Court held that the producer of an unauthorized film dramatization of the copyrighted book Ben Hur was liable for his sale of the motion picture to jobbers, who in turn arranged for the commercial exhibition of the film. * * * [*436] * * * [But t]he producer in Kalem did not merely provide the "means" to accomplish an infringing activity; the producer supplied the work itself, albeit in a new medium of expression. Sony in the instant case does not supply Betamax consumers with respondents' works; respondents do. Sony supplies a piece of equipment that is generally capable of copying the entire range of programs that may be televised: those that are uncopyrighted, those that are copyrighted but may be copied without objection from the copyright holder, and those that the copyright holder would prefer not to have copied. The Betamax can be used to [*437] make authorized or unauthorized uses of copyrighted works, but the range of its potential use is much broader than the particular infringing use of the film Ben Hur involved in Kalem. Kalem does not support respondents' novel theory of liability.

Justice Holmes [in Kalem] stated that the producer had "contributed" to the infringement of the copyright, and the label "contributory infringement" has been applied in a number of lower court copyright cases involving an ongoing relationship between the direct infringer and the contributory infringer at the time the infringing conduct occurred. In such cases, as in other situations in which the imposition of vicarious liability is manifestly just, 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.(5) This case, however, plainly does not fall [*438] in that category. The only contact between Sony and the users of the Betamax that is disclosed by this record occurred at the moment of sale. The District Court expressly found that "no employee of Sony, . . . had either direct involvement with the allegedly infringing activity or direct contact with purchasers of Betamax who recorded copyrighted works off-the-air."  And it further found that "there was no evidence that any of the copies made by . . . individual witnesses in this suit were influenced or encouraged by [Sony's] advertisements." [*439]

If vicarious liability is to be imposed on Sony in this case, it must rest on the fact that tit has sold equipment with constructive knowledge of the fact that its customers may use that equipment to make unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. There is no precedent in the law of copyright for the imposition of vicarious liability on such a theory. The closest analogy is provided by the patent law cases to which it is appropriate to refer because of the historic kinship between patent law and copyright law.(6) [*440]

In the Patent Act both the concept of infringement and the concept of contributory infringement are expressly defined by statute.(7) The prohibition against contributory infringement is confined to the knowing sale of a component especially made for use in connection with a particular patent. There is no suggestion in the statute that one patentee may object to the sale of a product that might be used in connection with other patents. Moreover, the Act expressly provides that the sale of a "staple article or commodity of commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use" is not contributory infringement. 35 U. S. C. § 271(c).

When a charge of contributory infringement is predicated entirely on the sale of an article of commerce that is used by the purchaser to infringe a patent, the public interest in access to that article of commerce is necessarily implicated. A [*441] finding of contributory infringement does not, of course, remove the article from the market altogether; it does, however, give the patentee effective control over the sale of that item. Indeed, a finding of contributory infringement is normally the functional equivalent of holding that the disputed article is within the monopoly granted to the patentee.(8)

For that reason, in contributory infringement cases arising under the patent laws the Court has always recognized the critical importance of not allowing the patentee to extend his monopoly beyond the limits of his specific grant. These cases deny the patentee any right to control the distribution of unpatented articles unless they are "unsuited for any commercial noninfringing use." Dawson Chemical Co. v. Rohm & Haas Co., 448 U.S. 176, 198 (1980). Unless a commodity "has no use except through practice of the patented method," the patentee has no right to claim that its distribution constitutes contributory infringement. "To form the basis for contributory infringement the item must almost be uniquely suited as a component of the patented invention." P. Rosenberg, Patent Law Fundamentals § 17.02[2] (2d ed. 1982). "[A] sale of an article which though adapted to an infringing use is also adapted to other and lawful uses, is not enough to make the seller a contributory infringer. Such a rule would block the wheels of commerce." Henry v. A. B. Dick Co., 224 U.S. 1, 48 (1912), overruled on other grounds, [*442] Motion Picture Patents Co. v. Universal Film Mfg. Co., 243 U.S. 502, 517 (1917).

We recognize there are substantial differences between the patent and copyright laws. But in both areas the contributory infringement doctrine is grounded on the recognition that adequate protection of a monopoly may require the courts to look beyond actual duplication of a device or publication to the products or activities that make such duplication possible. 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.

* * *
    [The Sony majority went on to rule that private, noncommercial "time-shifting" of television programs that are broadcast for free over the public airways is fair use. Furthermore, the Court held that such fair use, when combined with lawful acts of recording that some producers encouraged and to which others did not object, constituted sufficiently "substantial" noninfringing use to relieve Sony of contributory liability.]
* * *

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. . . .


1.  [Court's footnote 10]  In its Report accompanying the comprehensive revision of the Copyright Act in 1909, the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives explained this balance:

    "The enactment of copyright legislation by Congress under the terms of the Constitution is not based upon any natural right that the author has in his writings, . . . but upon the ground that the welfare of the public will be served and progress of science and useful arts will be promoted by securing to authors for limited periods the exclusive rights to their writings. . . ."
    "In enacting a copyright law Congress must consider . . . two questions: First, how much will the legislation stimulate the producer and so benefit the public; and, second, how much will the monopoly granted be detrimental to the public?  The granting of such exclusive rights, under the proper terms and conditions, confers a benefit upon the public that outweighs the evils of the temporary monopoly."
H. R. Rep. No. 2222, 60th Cong., 2d Sess., 7 (1909).

Back to Text

2.  [Court's footnote 11]  Thus, for example, the development and marketing of player pianos and perforated rolls of music, see White-Smith Music Publishing Co. v. Apollo Co., 209 U.S. 1 (1908), preceded the enactment of the Copyright Act of 1909; innovations in copying techniques gave rise to the statutory exemption for library copying embodied in § 108 of the 1976 revision of the copyright law; the development of the technology that made it possible to retransmit television programs by cable or by microwave systems, see Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 U.S. 390 (1968), and Teleprompter Corp. v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 415 U.S. 394 (1974), prompted the enactment of the complex provisions set forth in 17 U. S. C. § 111(d)(2)(B) and § 111(d)(5) after years of detailed congressional study, see Eastern Microwave, Inc. v. Doubleday Sports, Inc., 691 F.2d 125, 129 (CA2 1982).

By enacting the Sound Recording Amendment of 1971, 85 Stat. 391, Congress also provided the solution to the "record piracy" problems that had been created by the development of the audio tape recorder.  Sony argues that the legislative history of that Act, see especially H. R. Rep. No. 92-487, p. 7 (1971), indicates that Congress did not intend to prohibit the private home use of either audio or video tape recording equipment.  In view of our disposition of the contributory infringement issue, we express no opinion on that question.

Back to Text

3.  [Court's footnote 16]  In this regard, we reject respondents' attempt to cast this action as comparable to a class action because of the positions taken by amici with copyright interests and their attempt to treat the statements made by amici as evidence in this case.  The stated desires of amici concerning the outcome of this or any litigation are no substitute for a class action, are not evidence in the case, and do not influence our decision; we examine an amicus curiae brief solely for whatever aid it provides in analyzing the legal questions before us.

We note the parties' statements that the questions of Sony's liability under the "doctrines" of "direct infringement" and "vicarious liability" are not nominally before this Court. We also observe, however, that reasoned analysis of respondents' unprecedented contributory infringement claim necessarily entails consideration of arguments and case law which may also be forwarded under the other labels, and indeed the parties to a large extent rely upon such arguments and authority in support of their respective positions on the issue of contributory infringement.

Back to Text

4.  [Court's footnote 17]  As the District Court correctly observed, however, "the lines between direct infringement, contributory infringement and vicarious liability are not clearly drawn . . . ." The lack of clarity in this area may, in part, be attributable to the fact that an infringer is not merely one who uses a work without authorization by the copyright owner, but also one who authorizes the use of a copyrighted work without actual authority from the copyright owner.

Back to Text

5.  [Court's footnote18]  The so-called "dance hall cases," Famous Music Corp. v. Bay State Harness Horse Racing & Breeding Assn., Inc., 554 F.2d 1213 (1st Cir. 1977) (racetrack retained infringer to supply music to paying customers); KECA Music, Inc. v. Dingus McGee's Co., 432 F.Supp. 72 (W.D. Mo. 1977) (cocktail lounge hired musicians to supply music to paying customers); Dreamland Ball Room, Inc. v. Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., 36 F.2d 354 (7th Cir. 1929) (dance hall hired orchestra to supply music to paying customers), are often contrasted with the so-called landlord-tenant cases, in which landlords who leased premises to a direct infringer for a fixed rental and did not participate directly in any infringing activity were found not to be liable for contributory infringement. . . .

In Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. v. H. L. Green Co., 316 F.2d 304 (2d Cir. 1963), the owner of 23 chainstores retained the direct infringer to run its record departments. The relationship was structured as a licensing arrangement, so that the defendant bore none of the business risk of running the department. Instead, it received 10% or 12% of the direct infringer's gross receipts. The Court of Appeals concluded:

    "[The dance-hall cases] and this one lie closer on the spectrum to the employer-employee model, than to the landlord-tenant model. . . . [On] the particular facts before us, . . . Green's relationship to its infringing licensee, as well as its strong concern for the financial success of the phonograph record concession, renders it liable for the unauthorized sales of the 'bootleg' records.
* * *
    ". . . [The] imposition of vicarious liability in the case before us cannot be deemed unduly harsh or unfair. Green has the power to police carefully the conduct of its concessionaire . . .; our judgment will simply encourage it to do so, thus placing responsibility where it can and should be effectively exercised."
Id., at 308 [emphasis omitted].

In Gershwin Publishing Corp. v. Columbia Artists Management, Inc., 443 F.2d 1159 (CA2 1971), the direct infringers retained the contributory infringer to manage their performances. The contributory infringer would contact each direct infringer, obtain the titles of the musical compositions to be performed, print the programs, and then sell the programs to its own local organizations for distribution at the time of the direct infringement.  The Court of Appeals emphasized that the contributory infringer had actual knowledge that the artists it was managing were performing copyrighted works, was in a position to police the infringing conduct of the artists, and derived substantial benefit from the actions of the primary infringers.

* * *

Back to Text

6.  [Court's footnote 19] [Citations omitted.] The two areas of the law, naturally, are not identical twins, and we exercise the caution which we have expressed in the past in applying doctrine formulated in one area to the other.  See generally Mazer v. Stein, 347 U.S. 201, 217-218 (1954) . . . .

We have consistently rejected the proposition that a similar kinship exists between copyright law and trademark law, and in the process of doing so have recognized the basic similarities between copyrights and patents. The Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82, 91-92 (1879); see also United Drug Co. v. Theodore Rectanus Co., 248 U.S. 90, 97 (1918) (trademark right "has little or no analogy" to copyright or patent) . . . .  Given the fundamental differences between copyright law and trademark law, in this copyright case we do not look to the standard for contributory infringement set forth in Inwood Laboratories, Inc. v. Ives Laboratories, Inc., 456 U.S. 844, 854-855 (1982), which was crafted for application in trademark cases. There we observed that a manufacturer or distributor could be held liable to the owner of a trademark if it intentionally induced a merchant down the chain of distribution to pass off its product as that of the trademark owner's or if it continued to supply a product which could readily be passed off to a particular merchant whom it knew was mislabeling the product with the trademark owner's mark.  If Inwood's narrow standard for contributory trademark infringement governed here, respondents' claim of contributory infringement would merit little discussion.  Sony certainly does not "intentionally [induce]" its customers to make infringing uses of respondents' copyrights, nor does it supply its products to identified individuals known by it to be engaging in continuing infringement of respondents' copyrights[.]

Back to Text

7.  [Court's footnote 20] Title 35 U. S. C. § 271 provides:

    "(a) Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses [offers to sell,] or sells any patented invention, within the United States [or imports into the United States any patented invention] during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent."  [Professor's note: the bracketed language in this subsection was added by amendment in 1994, long after this case was decided.]
    "(b) Whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer."
    "(c) Whoever sells a component of a patented machine, manufacture, combination or composition, or a material or apparatus for use in practicing a patented process, constituting a material part of the invention, knowing the same to be especially made or especially adapted for use in an infringement of such patent, and not a staple article or commodity of commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use, shall be liable as a contributory infringer."
* * *

Back to Text

8.  [Court's footnote 24] It seems extraordinary to suggest that the Copyright Act confers upon all copyright owners collectively, much less the two respondents in this case, the exclusive right to distribute VTR's [video tape recorders] simply because they may be used to infringe copyrights. That, however, is the logical implication of their claim. The request for an injunction below indicates that respondents seek, in effect, to declare VTR's contraband. Their suggestion in this Court that a continuing royalty pursuant to a judicially created compulsory license would be an acceptable remedy merely indicates that respondents, for their part, would be willing to license their claimed monopoly interest in VTR's to Sony in return for a royalty.

Back to Text

Back to Top