Hit & Run

They're Coming for your VCR


"Ban the Technology" advocates could score a major coup with the bipartisan-backed Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act (IICA). It's aimed at banning peer-to-peer file sharing networks, but it could also make mp3 players, VCR's, even walkmans (walkmen?) illegal.

Under existing law, companies are not liable for "vicarious copyright infringement" performed by their users, said Mike Godwin, a lawyer at the advocacy group Public Knowledge. That legal doctrine permits Sony to sell VCRs, TiVo to sell digital TV recorders and Apple Computer to sell iPods, even though some fraction of their customers use them for copyright infringement.

If the IICA were to become law, "let's say that you're selling an MP3 player and it turns out that the MP3 player can be used to move copyrighted material around really easily," Godwin said. "People start buying your MP3 player. Do you want a world where courts can say, 'Hey buddy, you're liable for copyright infringement?'"

Critics of the IICA have suggested that it also might have the effect of overturning the Supreme Court's 1984 decision in the Sony v. Universal City Studios case, often referred to as the "Betamax" lawsuit. In that 5-4 opinion, the majority said VCRs were legal to sell, because they were "capable of substantial noninfringing uses." But the majority stressed that Congress had the power to enact a law that would lead to a different outcome.