MPAA's Valenti signs Betamax tapes for EFF protesters as Grokster case continues in US Supreme Court

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Monday, April 4, 2005

Cindy Cohn of the EFF holds a Betamax tape signed by Jack Valenti of the MPAA. Photo: Luis Villa, Creative Commons license
A closer shot of a Betamax tape signed by Jack Valenti of the MPAA Photo: Luis Villa, Creative Commons license
Protesters outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC during the MGM v. Grokster case Photo: Luis Villa, Creative Commons license

As the case between film studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer and file-sharing software firm Grokster continues in the US Supreme Court, protesters from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) adopted a novel tactic. EFF Staff Technologist Seth Schoen arrived at the courthouse with several Betamax tapes. As Jack Valenti, until recently the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), arrived, EFF Media Coordinator Annalee Newitz asked Valenti to sign one of the tapes; Valenti complied with her request.

In testimony before the US Congress in 1982, Valenti sided with an effort to outlaw Sony's early video cassette recorder standard, Betamax. The Valenti testimony included the oft-quoted phrase, "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."

The case now before the Supreme Court, MGM v. Grokster, has some similarities to the Betamax case of 1982. Both disputes concern new technologies used for copying media — exclusively video in the earlier Betamax case, all-digital media in the current case of Grokster. There are dissimilarities as well. A recent statement from Recording Artists' Coalition spokesperson and professional singer, Sheryl Crow, points out that with Betamax technology, "a second copy turned out to be of measurably inferior quality," while with Grokster, "one could possibly distribute millions of perfectly reproduced copies." Crow also quotes an expurgated version of the copyright clause of the US Constitution,

"To promote the progress of...useful arts by securing ... to authors [sic] the exclusive right to their respective writings ..."

The original text reads:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;"