Today, DRM fears inspire a lot of jokes that reference George Orwell's 1984. But it was in that titular year, three decades ago today, that the U.S. Supreme Court reached a decision that defined and protected our right to record copyrighted material: Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., or the Betamax case.
Ars Technica has a great recounting of the long road that led to the January 17th, 1984 decision; it's a fascinating read. In short, Sony started catching heat from studios as soon as the Betamax hit the market in 1976, and legal uncertainty, a square dance of rulings and appeals, and lobbying from both sides left consumers unsure just what they could and couldn't do with their Video Tape Recorders (the term "VCR" still hadn't been adopted).
The final ruling—which you can read in full here—didn't just legalize the right to record on a Sony Betamax machine. As Robert Schwartz, then a young lawyer for the hastily-assembled Home Recording Rights Coalition involved in the case, writes on Slate:
Without these [...] protections for consumers and innovators, we could not today buy most consumer digital products or log on to most online services that search for, store, and respond to copyrighted information. All online services, as well as digital devices like DVRs, smartphones, and tablets, must routinely store and display copyrighted information and programming based on consumer searches and requests. Most do not or cannot require advance permission. The Internet itself would have remained a closed circuit primarily for government, educational, and industrial use. There would be no social networks.
In the years since the ruling, it's been notoriously hard to figure out how home consumption of copyrighted work has impacted the entertainment industry. The rise of the VCR let Hollywood make more money on home videos than it ever could at box offices, while digital music has led to both a predictable fall and a perplexing rise in physical sales.
And these questions aren't going away: 3D printing and streaming TV are just two new areas where copyright questions still loom large. Not to mention that, since the Betamax ruling, the Supreme Court has toned down its pro-public stance considerably.
It almost makes you wish we were back in 1984.