Jack Valenti’s 1982 Testimony on the VCR’s Assault on Life As We Know It

By | September 29, 2002

Cryptome.org has a transcript of federal hearings on “Home Recording of Copyrighted Work”. These hearings took place in 1982 as a result of a decision in the case of Universal City Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America. Universal had sued Sony over whether private individual users of VCRs were infringing copyrights by recording copyrighted television broadcasting without permission. While Sony won the original case, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the judgment and remanded the case to a lower court for establishment of a compensation scheme for copyright owners. Bills were quickly initiated in the House and Senate to overturn this decision. The bills typically prescribed either free recording for private non-commercial users or a compulsory license with compensation via royalties paid on recording devices and blank media.

Here are a couple choice quotes from Mr. Valenti:

“But now we are facing a very new and a very troubling assault on our fiscal security, on our very economic life and we are facing it from a thing called the video cassette recorder and its necessary companion called the blank tape.”

“Because unless the Congress recognizes the rights of creative property owners as owners of private property, that this property that we exhibit in theaters, once it leaves the post-theatrical markets, it is going to be so eroded in value by the use of these unlicensed machines, that the whole valuable asset is going to be blighted. In the opinion of many of the people in this room and outside of this room, blighted, beyond all recognition.”

“Now, these machines are advertised for one purpose in life. Their only single mission, their primary mission is to copy coyrighted material that belongs to other people.”

Notice how he makes two false statements, then backtracks with a probably true statement about the “primary mission” of the VCR, though I’m not sure who merits the role of final arbiter on the primary mission of the VCR. Since elsewhere he refers to rental and purchase of pre-recorded videotapes, even he knows that recording of copyrighted material is not the VCR’s “only single mission.” Much of his testimony follows this pattern of lies or exaggerations, which he then subtly blurs with statements that are mostly true, but usually only after being challenged on the lies or hyperbole.

“Now, we cannot live in a marketplace, Mr. Chairman — you simply cannot live in a marketplace, where there is one unleashed animal in that marketplace, unlicensed. It would no longer be a marketplace; it would be a kind of a jungle, where this one unlicensed instrument is capable of devouring all that people had invested in and labored over and brought forth as a film or a television program, and, in short, laying waste to the orderly distribution of this product.”

Similarly to the situation for webcasting and p2p file sharing, “orderly distribution” is proffered as the reason to give the copyright owners maximum control.

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

This is probably the most famous quote from the hearing. This is only one of many ridiculous hyperboles that Valenti offered during the hearing.

“They show an astonishing lack of the copyright law. They know good and well that that is not a criminal infringement unless you do it for profit.”

This was Valenti’s response when asked if he felt like a copyright infringer when he and his family recorded copyrighted material. Valenti had just talked about how his son paused the VCR during a live broadcast to edit out commercials. After first trying to avoid the question, he appears to state that personal copying when not done for profit is legal. The “they” he is referring to are the defendants, Sony.

“… because I have been saying it in public when trying to pick a number when people want to talk about numbers as being fairly reasonable, a $50 on the machine and a $1 fee on the blank tape.”

Even in 1982, I suspect these numbers would have been a fairly high percentage of the costs at that time. Obviously, they would constitute a huge percentage of today’s prices for VCRs and blank tapes. He then tries to argue that manufacturers will eat virtually all the cost, passing through only 1 to 2 percent to consumers.

Then, Valenti uses misleading comparisons in an attempt to argue that Japanese corporations are even fatter, greedier pigs than American TV and Film producers have been widely charged to be. Valenti presents the combined profit for “Hitachi, Matsushita, Sanyo, Sony, TDK, Toshiba, Victor” and then states that 6 out of 10 films don’t produce a positive return. Well, but do the four profitable films make up for the six negative ones by a huge margin? We can’t tell from Valenti’s argument. What if 7 out of 10 of Matsushita’s products aren’t profitable, but they make up for it by a huge margin with the other 3? If Jack knows, he certainly wouldn’t admit it. Fair comparisons are not part of his arsenal.

2 thoughts on “Jack Valenti’s 1982 Testimony on the VCR’s Assault on Life As We Know It

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