Monday, May 29, 2023

Justice John Paul Stevens’ Legacy on Intellectual Property

Last week, Clancco reader Matt Marco asked me who I liked for Justice Stevens’ seat on the US Supreme Court. I answered, albeit briefly, that much would depend on that Justice’s views on intellectual property, free speech, and cultural production.

Last week, had a good article on Justice Stevens’ legacy on IP, in particular his authoring the seminal Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios (or, the Betamax decision, which granted couch potatoes the right to videotape MTV videos and QVC infomercials and watch them any time and at our leisure, yet for personal and non-commercial use). Washington Post entertainment critic Tom Shales called the decision “one small step for man, one giant kick in Big Brother’s pants.”

More than any other current justice, Stevens has seen both patent and copyright law as balancing acts that need to be kept in check by the Supreme Court. Along with Justice Breyer, Stevens dissented in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case, arguing that Congress shouldn’t be allowed to retroactively extend existing copyright grants, as they did by passing the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act.

In fact, Stevens made his most profound impact on intellectual property law in the copyright sphere by authoring the majority opinion in the 1984 case Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, also known as the Betamax decision, which some consider the most important copyright ruling of all time.

Here’s’s article, which also covers a bit on Stevens’ view on patents as well as how he convinced the other Justices to side with him on the Betamax decision. One interesting note: both Marshall and Rehnquist joined in the Betamax dissent:

The Court explains that a manufacturer of a product is not liable for contributory infringement as long as the product is “capable of substantial noninfringing uses” … Such a definition essentially eviscerates the concept of contributory infringement. Only the most unimaginative manufacturer would be unable to demonstrate that an image-duplicating product is “capable” of substantial noninfringing uses. Surely Congress desired to prevent the sale of products that are used almost exclusively to infringe copyrights.


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