The VCR's legacy shines brightly at YouTube and Aereo

Google pays homage today to the 57th anniversary of the first commercially available videocassette recorder. But that gadget didn't simply enable us to record daytime TV for evening viewing; it soon forged a legal precedent for the next generation of home entertainment technology.

In celebration of the VCR, YouTube has added a fun VHS tape emulator to select videos on the site. The effect is a startlingly accurate portrayal of what it was like for homes across America back in the grainy days of the 1980s and '90s, a.k.a. the dark days before the advent of the DVD player.

With one click on the VHS tape icon, you’ll immediately see the hallmarks of the most popular VCR format for the home: White lines of static, the fuzzy image resolution, the occasional slip of vertical hold, and even that slanted image distortion when you hit pause. The only thing missing are onscreen control icons and timers in big, chunky fonts.

YouTube’s recollection of VHS is, of course, a little over the top. There were times when VHS images were clear—at least for the first four or five spins of a new movie. Over time, however, all VHS tapes end up pretty much as YouTube portrays them.

A dead technology still living strong

The VCR may not appear immediately significant to our current era of DVRs, torrents, and online streaming, but the early set-top box prompted a major win for user rights in the so-called Betamax case.

In 1984, Sony, the creator of the Betamax VCR, argued in the U.S. Supreme Court with Universal Studios and Disney over whether the VCR could be used to infringe copyright and whether Sony was responsible for that infringement. The court ruled that Sony could not be held accountable for what someone does with a VCR since you could use the technology for both infringing and non-infringing users. The court also made it clear that time shifting, which allows you record a TV show for private use and later watching, did not constitute copyright infringement.

“Thanks to the Betamax ruling,” digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation says. “…[makers of]…technology capable of infringing and non-infringing uses (e.g., personal computers, CD burners, the TiVo DVR, Apple's iPod, and Web browsers) can continue to sell their wares without fear of lawsuits from copyright owners.”

The effects of the Betamax case continue to influence issues surrounding copyright, most recently with the legal spat between Aereo and the television networks.

Aereo meets Betamax

Aereo
An Aereo antenna array.

Aereo is a start-up that lets you rent a tiny TV antenna for $8 to $12 per month, and then either watch live broadcasts online or record TV shows to a remote DVR for later streaming. This set-up infuriates the networks, as it cuts them out of lucrative retransmission fees from Aereo.

The heart of Aereo’s case, according to the Harvard Business Review, relies on the argument that each individual person rents their own individual antenna and DVR. Customers receive broadcasts only from that antenna and to that specific DVR. In other words, if 3 million Aereo users were to record the Super Bowl, Aereo doesn’t make one copy of the broadcast and distribute it to them all. Instead, each of those 3 million people has their own original copy of that broadcast to watch privately. What’s the difference if that antenna and DVR sit in your home or in a massive warehouse?

Aereo’s argument is based on a court victory by Cablevision in 2009 concerning its remote DVR service, which let you record and store programming for later viewing in a Cablevision data center rather than a set-top box at home. Just like with Aereo, Cablevision recorded individual copies of each program for every subscriber. Cablevision’s case relied on the Betamax ruling just as Aereo is relying on the Cablevision case. So you could call the current copyfight over Aereo the grandchild of the Betamax issue.

Just as with Betamax and Cablevision, entertainment companies have so far faced legal setbacks in their attempts to stop Aereo in its tracks. Some broadcasters—including CBS, Fox, and Univision—are even threatening to stop over-the-air broadcasts altogether if they can’t put Aereo out of business.

Aereo is currently available exclusively in New York City, but the company plans to expand to other cities in the future.

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