Co-writing today’s post is Jonathan Band of policybandwidth, with CCIA’s Matthew Schruers, on the recently-announced retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens:
JUSTICE STEVENS INVENTED THE INTERNET
Justice John Paul Stevens’s announcement that he will resign from the Supreme Court at the end of this term has caused a flood of newspaper articles and blogs about the most significant opinions he authored during his 34 years on the Court. With the exception of an insightful piece by Joe Mullin at Corporate Counsel, the media has largely overlooked one of his opinions that has had a direct daily impact on virtually all Americans: the majority opinion inSony v. Universal, decided by the Supreme Court in 1984. This decision is the legal foundation of the Digital Age.
The case involved the lawfulness of the Betamax video-cassette recorder manufactured by Sony. The motion picture studios took the position that the Betamax contributed to copyright infringement by allowing consumers to tape over-the-air broadcasts of television programs. After a five-week trial, a federal district court in California ruled that Sony was not liable for contributory infringement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court, and found that Sony did contribute to infringement.
Equally revolutionary was the standard Justice Stevens articulated for contributory infringement. The Copyright Act does not define when the manufacturer of a device should be liable for the infringing conduct of the device’s consumers. Relying on language in the Patent Act, Justice Stevens ruled that so long as a device is “capable of substantial noninfringing uses,” the manufacturer of the device cannot be liable for infringing copies consumers make with the device.
Justice Stevens did more than just write the majority opinion in this decision that is the legal foundation of the Digital Age. He also played a decisive role in changing the direction of the Supreme Court from affirming the Ninth Circuit to reversing it. When Justice Thurgood Marshall’s papers were opened to the public after his death, it became evident how skillfully Justice Stevens had maneuvered the Court in a new course (see Jon Band’s 1994 article).