WMU News

Napster suit parallels earlier video case

Aug. 18, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- The court case involving the recording industry, the wildly popular Web site Napster and MP3 file sharing bears a striking resemblance to an earlier case involving the motion picture industry, Sony and video recording technology.

Dr. Richard Gershon, a WMU associate professor of communication, says that in 1984 Universal Studios and Disney filed suit against Sony for development of the Betamax and video tape recording technology.

"The concern by the film industry, and by Universal and Disney in particular, was with the potential impact video tape recording could have on the loss of copyrighted material when people could suddenly record off the air for their own personal use," Gershon says. "And so they filed suit."

By a narrow margin, the Supreme Court ruled that video recording for personal use does not violate federal copyright laws. Gershon says deciding such cases often hinges on the concept of "fair use" as stated in 1976 federal copyright law. Courts have decided that videotaping off the television or photo copying a magazine article is "fair use" of copyrighted material, Gershon says.

In the case of Universal Studios and Sony, the court's ruling left open the door for development of the video cassette recorder and what would ultimately become the huge videotape rental business, which ironically ended up being very profitable for the film industry, Gershon says. How things will pan out for Napster and the recording industry remains to be seen, but Gershon says the courts would be wise to tread lightly or risk stifling development of budding MP3 file sharing technology.

"One question the courts are going to have to decide is, does MP3 file sharing as a technology offer something that can be potentially very very beneficial to a lot of people down the road?" Gershon says. "And so the concern is that you don't want to rule too quickly and in such a way that you cut the technology off before it has a chance to really flourish."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
616 387-8400