CURATED BY Timothy B. Lee
2014-06-25 14:57:54 -0400
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In 1984, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the legality of one of the first video cassette recorders. The ruling laid the foundation for the modern consumer electronics industry, because it shielded manufacturers of media devices from liability for their customers' infringing activities.
Two decades later, the VCR had given way to digital video recorders: set-top boxes that let users record television programs to a hard drive. The cable company Cablevision introduced a product it called a remote-storage DVR. Like a conventional DVR, the RS-DVR allowed customers to record TV shows and play them back later. But instead of being in the customer's living room, the RS-DVR hardware was physically located in a Cablevision data center.
Content owners sued Cablevision, arguing that the company was illegally profiting from the distribution of copyrighted content. The cable company responded that the physical location of its recording equipment is irrelevant for copyright purposes. In Cablevision's view, if a conventional DVR is legal — and the Supreme Court said as much in 1984 — then a remote-storage DVR should be legal too.
In a landmark 2008 decision, the Second Circuit Appeals Court bought Cablevision's argument. Two factors were essential to the court's analysis. First, the user, not Cablevision, controlled which programs to record, and when. And second, the RS-DVR made a separate copy of a program for each user who recorded it. While this was technologically wasteful, it made the RS-DVR more similar to a conventional DVR, and helped the service stay within the confines of copyright law.
The Cablevision decision was important because it provided a solid legal foundation for online "locker services" that allow users to store and retrieve potentially copyrighted files online. For example, in 2011, both Amazon and Google introduced services that allowed users to store their music online and listen to it on any device. Prior to the Cablevision decision, there was some uncertainty about whether such a service infringed the copyrights of the recording industry. The Cablevision ruling made it clear that such services were legal so long as each user's files are stored separately and users control when files are uploaded and downloaded.
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