• United States

Betamax is dead, long live the judgment

Sep 20, 20044 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsiPod

The Induce Act is an ugly piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). It seems Hatch just can’t stay away from really bad legislation involving computer and network technology.

Conventional wisdom has always held that Sony’s Betamax format was better than its rival, the VHS standard. Alas, there are no technical grounds for this argument, and real reasons for the demise of Betamax were twofold: Betamax tapes were only one hour long, which made consumers turn to the much longer VHS format; and, according to Sony founder Akio Morita, the company refused to license the format, which severely limited the growth of its market.

But there’s one lasting legacy of the Betamax format – a court case. The case, Sony vs. Universal – better known as the Betamax Decision – concluded that, though some people used VCRs to copy movies, they also have what the court termed “substantial non-infringing uses” and thus were legal.

This decision was hugely important because it created a foundation that has protected emerging products and technologies that can be used to infringe on the rights of copyright holders.

Without this judgment the media and entertainment companies – which usually have far deeper pockets than those they seek to destroy – would have been able to attack any product or technology by which they felt threatened. Products that would have been in the sights of big media would include Apple’s iPod, CD burners and peer-to-peer systems, all of which the entertainment industry despises because they have no control over them.

Before any of you say, “What about Napster, it got shut down,” remember that Napster maintained a central directory of content and the company’s inability to remove copyrighted items from public access was what got them in trouble.

Last week the activist organization (actually an alias of the wonderfully named Downhill Battle organization) organized a call-in day to help defend the decision from the possible assault by the nascent Inducing Infringement of Copyright Act (S.2560 ), better known as the Induce Act.

The Induce Act is an ugly piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). It seems Hatch just can’t stay away from really bad legislation involving computer and network technology.

Hatch’s bill, to quote the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “would make it a crime to aid, abet or induce copyright infringement. He wants us all to think that the Induce Act is no big deal and that it only targets the bad guys while leaving the good guys alone. He says it doesn’t change the law; it just clarifies it. He’s wrong.”

To prove the point, the EFF has drafted a fake complaint   to illustrate how the Induce Act could be used.

“The Induce Act further defines the term ‘intentionally induces’ to mean ‘intentionally aids, abets, induces or procures, and intent may be shown by acts from which a reasonable person would find intent to induce infringement based upon all relevant information about such acts then reasonably available to the actor, including whether the activity relies on infringement for its commercial viability.’ Under this law, the defendants are liable for up to $150,000 for each song illegally copied by iPod users and all iPods must be declared illegal.”

The idea behind the effort was for as many people as possible to call key members of Congress to make them aware of the implications of the bill and turn public sentiment against it. More than 5,000 people signed up to make calls!

The importance of defeating the Induce Act should not be underestimated. Should it become law, the dampening effect on U.S. innovation and technology will be profound. Keep an eye on this bill, sign up at, and make sure your representatives hear from you. I, for one, don’t want to give up my iPod.

Next week, we’ll discuss what Downhill Battle is trying to do. Rage against Hatch’s machinations to


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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