How Mister Rogers Saved the VCR

Focus Features
Focus Features

In 1984, a landmark case laid down a controversial law regarding technology and copyright infringement. Here's a look back at the "Betamax Case," including the role Fred Rogers played in the Supreme Court's decision.

For many years in the pre-DVD/Blu-ray, pre-streaming era, the BetamaxSony’s prototype videotape player-recorder—was a punch line. A piece of technology that was quickly superseded by VHS and the VCR, it limped along in the shadows for two decades. And yet, it was the Betamax that gave its name to a court case that has played a pivotal role in both technological progress and copyright law over the last 30-plus years.

Like many other cool electronic products, the Betamax came from Japan. In late 1975, it was introduced to the U.S. by Sony, who touted its ability to “time-shift” television programming. In an era when most viewers still had to get up off the couch to change channels manually, this innovation was as futuristic as it sounded. Record a TV show right off the air? Are you kidding?

If the public was wowed by the idea, the major entertainment corporations were not. Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions filed a lawsuit in 1976 to halt the sale of the Betamax, claiming that film and TV producers would lose millions of dollars from unauthorized duplication and distribution of their copyrighted content.

When the case finally went to trial in 1979, the U. S. District Court ruled in favor of Sony, stating that taping programs for entertainment or time-shifting was fair use, and did not infringe on copyright. Further, there was no proof that the practice did any economic harm to the television or motion picture industry.

But Universal, unhappy with the verdict, appealed in 1981, and the ruling was reversed. Keep in mind that up until the arrival of the Betamax, movie studios had received a cut of the box office or fee whenever one of their films was shown. Now suddenly here was a rapidly expanding scenario that undermined that structure. And in this scenario was the seed of much that would follow over the next 34 years, right through today’s ongoing battles over illegal streaming sites.

MISTER ROGERS GOES TO WASHINGTON

With large sums of money and copyright ownership at stake, the Betamax case arrived at the Supreme Court in 1983. By this point, nearly 50 percent of all homes in America had a VCR (VHS replaced Betamax, mainly because its tapes had longer recording capability) and sales of videocassettes were competing with theatrical box office. Universal Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America, nicknamed the “Betamax Case,” was argued for a year. It was a trial of extremes. On one hand, you had Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, yelling about the “savagery and ravages” of the VCR, and claiming that "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." On the other, you had the testimony from Fred Rogers. Defending the VCR, he said:

"I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the 'Neighborhood' off-the-air ... they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ ... I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important."

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sony and cited Rogers's comments: "He testified that he had absolutely no objection to home taping for noncommercial use and expressed the opinion that it is a real service to families to be able to record children's programs and to show them at appropriate times."

The decision set two major precedents. The first upheld the original decision—that recording a broadcast program for later viewing is fair use. The second was, and still is, controversial—that the manufacturer of a device or technology that can be used for copyright infringement but also has “substantial non-infringing uses” can’t be held liable for copyright violations by those who use it. It’s kind of technology’s version of “don’t shoot the messenger.”

The same points of law would reemerge two decades later in cases against file-sharing sites Napster and Grokster (in the latter, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against them for trading copyrighted material). Of course, despite the popularity of legal movie and TV streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, file sharing continues. Whether it can be, or should be, stopped is a subject for another day. But it’s worth remembering that all the manufacturers of technology capable of copyright infringing (from computers to iPhones to DVRs) continue to sell their wares without fear of lawsuits because of the once-laughed-at Betamax.

To discover more about the fascinating life of Fred Rogers, check out Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary from Focus Features, which arrives in theaters on June 8, 2018.

Virginia’s University of Lynchburg is Adding a Harry Potter Class to Its Fall Curriculum

Warner Bros. Ent. Harry Potter Publishing Rights J.K.R.
Warner Bros. Ent. Harry Potter Publishing Rights J.K.R.

While it’s not exactly an invitation to Hogwarts, students at Virginia’s University of Lynchburg are getting just about the next best thing. This fall, the campus is adding a Harry Potter-themed class to its curriculum as a general education course.

The university is in the process of changing some of its course offerings and streamlining classes in recognition of its modern students. According to WSET ABC 13, Dr. Sharon Foreman, director of general education, said of the new curriculum: "It is very targeted towards 21st century students who are going out into a global society and so we want faculty, staff, and administrators to know what that means, what it looks like, and [to] experience it first hand.”

Faculty have decided providing an education for a global society includes offering courses like the upcoming "Harry Potter and the Good Life," which will ask students to read J.K. Rowling’s books alongside the works of philosophers to create connections between the past and present.

University of Lynchburg coordinator of integrated seminars Amy Merrill Willis told WSLS 10 News that the course's instructor, Devin Brickhouse Bryson, is "going to be introducing philosophical concepts from [Plato], Socrates, and Aristotle, and asking students to think about the Harry Potter series in depth.”

Although there may not be a sorting hat or Butterbeer involved, the class sounds like a creative way to engage students in philosophy and critical issues, all while focused on the beloved Harry Potter series.

[h/t WSET ABC 13]

Pennsylvania Has Become a Hotbed of Bigfoot Sightings

iStock, THEPALMER
iStock, THEPALMER

If catching a glimpse of a real, live Bigfoot has been on your bucket list, you might want to plan a trip to Pennsylvania.

According to CBS Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania now ranks as the third best place to catch a glimpse of a Sasquatch. These findings came to light thanks to the Travel Channel’s new show In Search of Monsters, which analyzed the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) collection of sightings data.

According to the BFRO, which dubs itself “the only scientific research organization exploring the Bigfoot/Sasquatch mystery," of the 23,000 Bigfoot sighting reports they have on file, 1340 of them came from The Keystone State (although the site notes that there may be significant under-representation in some areas that lack sufficient internet access or computers).

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported on the growing popularity of Bigfoot hunting in Pennsylvania, with some cryptid searchers even viewing it as a fun weekend pastime.

Though Bigfoot's popularity may be on the rise in Pennsylvania, both California and Washington have PA beat when it comes to the sheer numbers. California was deemed the second best place to look for Sasquatch with over 1697 sightings reported, while Washington leads the country with 2032 sightings in all.

If you do happen to run into a Sasquatch, keep in mind that your reactions may have certain legal repercussions (for example, it's illegal to shoot Bigfoot in some states; you'll want to check with your state's wildlife department for your area's exact rules). And if you want to register that sighting, the BFRO makes it easy with an online form that allows you to recount all the key details—and speak with a BFRO investigator.

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