Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios
464 U.S. 417 (1984)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, 464 U.S. 417 (1984)

Sony Corporation of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.

No. 81-1687

Argued January 18, 1983

Reargued October 3, 1983

Decided January 17, 1984

464 U.S. 417

Syllabus

Petitioner Sony Corp. manufactures home videotape recorders (VTR's), and markets them through retail establishments, some of which are also petitioners. Respondents own the copyrights on some of the television programs that are broadcast on the public airwaves. Respondents brought an action against petitioners in Federal District Court, alleging that VTR consumers had been recording some of respondents' copyrighted works that had been exhibited on commercially sponsored television, and thereby infringed respondents' copyrights, and further that petitioners were liable for such copyright infringement because of their marketing of the VTR's. Respondents sought money damages, an equitable accounting of profits, and an injunction against the manufacture and marketing of the VTR's. The District Court denied respondents all relief, holding that noncommercial home use recording of material broadcast over the public airwaves was a fair use of copyrighted works, and did not constitute copyright infringement, and that petitioners could not be held liable as contributory infringers even if the home use of a VTR was considered an infringing use. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding petitioners liable for contributory infringement and ordering the District Court to fashion appropriate relief

Held: The sale of the VTR's to the general public does not constitute contributory infringement of respondents' copyrights. Pp. 464 U. S. 428-456.

(a) The protection given to copyrights is wholly statutory, and, in a case like this, in which Congress has not plainly marked the course to be followed by the judiciary, this Court must be circumspect in construing the scope of rights created by a statute that never contemplated such a calculus of interests. Any individual may reproduce a copyrighted work for a "fair use"; the copyright owner does not possess the exclusive right to such a use. Pp. 464 U. S. 428-434.

(b) Kalem Co. v. Harper Brothers,222 U. S. 55, does not support respondents' novel theory that supplying the "means" to accomplish an infringing activity and encouraging that activity through advertisement are sufficient to establish liability for copyright infringement. This case does not fall in the category of those in which it is manifestly just to

Page 464 U. S. 418

impose vicarious liability because 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. Here, the only contact between petitioners and the users of the VTR's occurred at the moment of sale. And there is no precedent for imposing vicarious liability on the theory that petitioners sold the VTR's with constructive knowledge that their customers might use the equipment to make unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. 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, or, indeed, is merely capable of substantial noninfringing uses. Pp. 464 U. S. 434-442.

(c) The record and the District Court's findings show (1) that there is a significant likelihood that substantial numbers of copyright holders who license their works for broadcast on free television would not object to having their broadcast time-shifted by private viewers (i.e., recorded at a time when the VTR owner cannot view the broadcast so that it can be watched at a later time); and (2) that there is no likelihood that time-shifting would cause nonminimal harm to the potential market for, or the value of, respondents' copyrighted works. The VTR's are therefore capable of substantial noninfringing uses. Private, noncommercial time-shifting in the home satisfies this standard of noninfringing uses both because respondents have no right to prevent other copyright holders from authorizing such time-shifting for their programs and because the District Court's findings reveal that even the unauthorized home time-shifting of respondents' programs is legitimate fair use. Pp. 442-456.

659 F.2d 963, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which MARSHALL, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 464 U. S. 457.

Page 464 U. S. 419

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