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50 Years of the Video Cassette Recorder

November 2006

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Invented in 1956, the technology which produced the video cassette recorder (VCR) is already at the end of its days. But in its 50 years life span the VCR revolutionized the movie industry, changed television-watching habits, triggered the first "format wars," and raised new copyright questions, establishing jurisprudence on fair use.

When television first took off in the 1950s, the only means of preserving video footage was through kinescope, a process in which a special motion picture camera photographed a television monitor. Kinescope film took hours to develop and made for poor quality broadcasts. So most television networks just made live broadcasts direct from the studio. But in countries with several time zones, live broadcast was a problem. In the U.S., for example, the 6 p.m. news broadcast in New York, if aired direct, would be on at 3 p.m. Pacific time in Los Angeles. The only solutions were to repeat the live broadcast three hours later for LA, or to develop the kinescope film of the first broadcast and rush to air it on time. There was a pressing need for new recording technology.

The big electronic companies of the day raced to develop the technology, working on recorders that used magnetic tape. The Ampex Corporation, however, working in secrecy, based its research on a rotating head design, which had been patented by an Italian inventor in 1938 for use in audio recordings. After several failed attempts, and having abandoned the project altogether at one point, Ampex released the world’s first magnetic tape video recorder, the VRX-1000, in April 1956. It caused a sensation. But with a price tag of US$50,000 (equivalent to some US$325,000 today), expensive rotating heads that had to be changed every few hundred hours, and the need for a highly skilled operator, it was far from a consumer item.

The orders from the television networks, however, came pouring in. CBS was the first to use the new technology, airing Douglas Edwards and the News on November 30, 1956, from New York then replaying the broadcast from its Hollywood studios a few hours later. From that day on, Edwards never had to repeat a broadcast, and television changed forever.

Fast-forward to home video

The other companies abandoned their research and followed Ampex’s lead. RCA pooled patents with Ampex and licensed in the Ampex technology. The new goal was to develop a video machine for home use. It had to be solid, low-cost and easy to operate.

Sony released a first home model in 1964, followed by Ampex and RCA in 1965. While these machines, and those that followed over the next 10 to 15 years, were much less expensive than the VRX-1000, they remained beyond the means of the average consumer, and were bought primarily by wealthy customers, businesses and schools. But the consumer electronics industry could feel the first tremors of VCR revolution and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. Fortunes were sunk into further research and development.

The competition between the companies led to the release of three different, mutually incompatible VCR formats: Sony’s Betamax in 1975, JVC’s VHS in 1976, and the Philips V2000 in 1978. Two of these would come head-to-head in the 1980s in what became known as the first Format War.

Before the technology battle could begin, however, the consumer electronics industry had to find an answer to a more pressing problem: content. Where would it come from? What would people watch on their VCRs? At this stage, the industry regarded the VCR’s television recording feature as a bonus option of little utility to the average home user. – Why, they asked, would anyone want to record a TV show and watch it later? They thought movie videos would provide an answer to the content problem. But the studios had something to say about that.


When giving testimony in front of the U.S. Congress in 1982, Jack Valenti, then President of the Motion Picture Association of America, famously stated: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."

He need not have worried. In 2001, the best year on record for the home video industry, the Video Software Dealers’ Association reported that U.S. consumers spent a whopping US$7 billion on video rentals and US$4.9 billion on video purchases


Pause – The copyright challenge

Home video sent the movie industry into a spin. Television had already stolen a big part of their market, and they saw the VCR as a massive new threat. Copyright, they argued, was at stake. Did not the mere recording of a television show constitute an infringement of the copyright owner’s rights over reproduction? The studios took the issue to court. In 1976, the year after Sony’s release of the Betamax VCR, Universal City Studios and the Walt Disney Company sued Sony, seeking to have the VCR impounded as a tool of piracy.

New communications technology – then as now – has always challenged previous assumptions and jurisprudence in the area of copyright. Just as the printing press, by making possible the mass reproduction of books, led to the first copyright laws, and cinematography raised the question of authors’ rights to derivative works, now it was the turn of the VCR. The first court decision in 1979 went against the studios, ruling that use of the VCR for non-commercial recording was legal. The studios appealed and the decision was overturned in 1981. Sony then took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a landmark judgement in 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that the home recording of television programs for later viewing constituted "fair use."1 An important factor in the Court’s reasoning was that "time-shifting" – i.e. recording a program to watch it at another time – did not represent any substantial harm to the copyright holder, nor did it diminish the market for the product.

By then, the VCR had become a popular consumer product, and, contrary to their fears, the film studios found themselves to be major beneficiaries of the technology as the sale and rental of movie videos began generating huge new revenue streams. In 1986 alone, home video revenues added more than US$100 million of pure profit to Disney’s bottom line. The television stations, on the other hand, having found that the "useless" recording option was a big hit with viewers, faced a different problem. They had to find new ways to keep their advertisers happy now that viewers could fast-forward through the commercial breaks.

Betamax versus VHS: the battle to set the standard

Meanwhile, the format war between VHS and Betamax was underway. When Sony released Betamax, they were confident in the superiority of their technology and assumed that the other companies would abandon their formats and accept Betamax as the industry-wide technical standard. They were wrong. On their home turf in Japan, JVC refused to comply and went to market with their VHS format. In the European market, Philips did not play along either, but technical problems were to take Philips out of the fight almost before it began.

From where Sony stood, the only clear advantage of the VHS format was its longer recording time. So, Sony doubled the Betamax recording time. JVC followed suit. This continued until recording times were no longer an issue for potential customers, and marketing overtook superior technology as the key to the battle.

The two companies were on a par for several years until JVC’s VHS format pulled ahead. This was due in part to JVC’s broader licensing policy. Counting on increased royalties to make money on their VHS machines, JVC licensed the technology to big consumer electronics companies like Zenith and RCA. As a result, VHS machines became more abundant on the market and prices fell, increasing their consumer appeal.

At about the same time in the early 1980s, video rental shops started springing up on every street corner. Early on, the video shop owners recognized that they would have to make VCRs available for cheap rental to attract a larger client base. The high-quality Betamax machines were more expensive, harder to repair, and the first models were only compatible with certain television sets. So VHS became the obvious choice for the rental shops. The domino effect – greater availability of VHS machines leading to more VHS video releases – eventually squeezed out Betamax.

Press eject

Technology, of course, did not stand still. Already by 2003 DVD sales had overtaken those of the VCR, signaling the dying days of magnetic tape. Video rental shops, sensitive to market trends, switched to DVD, accelerating the demise of the VCR. And so it continues, as providers of the latest digital video recorders, of film streaming to mobile telephones and of other new technologies tumble over each other to offer consumers ever more options.

Nor have all related copyright issues been resolved. The digital revolution of communications media will continue to pose new challenges for copyright. Complex questions ranging from the use of digital rights management, to the exceptions and limitations that define fair use of copyrighted works, continue to fuel international debate in policy and legal norm-setting fora, so contributing to the ongoing evolution of copyright law and practice.

Fair Use, Fair Dealing, Statutory Exceptions

A crucial element of copyright law concerns the exceptions which limit its reach, i.e. the various uses of copyrighted works that do not "conflict with a normal exploitation of the work," nor "unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the author," as stated in the Berne Convention, and which give the public a certain leeway in making free use of the work.

Such uses are commonly enumerated as fair dealing categories in some common law jurisdictions, and as statutory limitations and exceptions to copyright in civil jurisdictions. In addition, there is a concept known as fair use. Established in the legislation of the United States of America, the fair use doctrine allows the use of works without the authorization of the rights owner, taking into account factors such as: the nature and purpose of the use, including whether it is for commercial purposes; the nature of the work; the amount of the work used in relation to the work as a whole; and the likely effect of its use on the potential commercial value of the work.

The interpretation of exceptions has changed over time, as in the VCR case, and will continue to evolve as new technologies open up new possibilities.

Exceptions may exist in various areas, such as:

  • public performance, e.g. for music played in religious services;
  • broadcasting, e.g. for the television transmission of an art work caught on film incidentally during a news report;
  • reproduction, e.g. the VCR "time-shifting" exception; or copies of a small part of a work made by a teacher to illustrate a lesson; or quotations from a novel, play or movie.
By Sylvie Castonguay, WIPO Magazine Editorial Staff, Communications and Public Outreach Division
1. U.S. Supreme Court SONY CORP. v. UNIVERSAL CITY STUDIOS, INC., 464 U.S. 417 (1984) 464 U.S. 417

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.