The practice of recording a television show onto video tape with a video recorder (VCR) for the purpose of playing the tape back later at a more convenient time for the viewer is known as time shifting. By law, with few exceptions, a person is not permitted to make an unauthorized copy of a copyrighted work like a television show. One exception to this is the concept of "fair use." Fair use allows copying and using copyrighted material for certain nonprofit, educational and/or entertaining purposes.

The VCR was introduced into the home television market in the United States during the mid-1970s. As the sale of VCRs increased in the early 1980s, more and more viewers began taping programs off-the-air. Program producers and other copyright owners went to court to stop what they believed to be infringement of their copyrights. Universal Studios sued Sony Corporation, the inventor and patent holder of the Betamax VCR, in hopes of stopping home taping of television programs, or of charging royalties for such copying. A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Universal's favor, but the matter went to the U.S. Supreme Court which issued its famous "Betamax" decision in 1984. Central to that decision was the granting of permission to home television viewers to record television shows for purposes of viewing them later at a more convenient time (i.e. time shifting.) The high court ruled that such copying constituted fair use, and would not hurt the market value of the programming itself to program producers. The court's decision was vague on the issue of warehousing tape copies. For example, if a viewer is a fan of a soap opera such as As The World Turns, and makes copies of each and every episode with the intention of building a library of the entire program series for repeated playback in the future, that would be warehousing. The court may have left this matter deliberately vague, however, because it would be virtually impossible to enforce a ban on such warehousing without violating a person's right to privacy.

The unauthorized copying issue is raised again each time a new electronic media technology is introduced to the public. The courts are likely to continue to support the concept of time shifting and other, similar personal uses of these technologies in the future.

-Robert G. Finney


Levy, Mark R. and Barrie Gunter. Home Video and the Changing Nature of the Television Audience. London: Libbey, 1988.

Levy, Mark R. Editor. The VCR Age: Home Video and Mass Communication. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1989.


See also Betamax Case; Copyright Law and Television; Sony Corporation; Videocassette; Videotape