July 15, 2024

Aimster, Napster, and the Betamax

An interesting amicus brief has been filed in the Aimster case, on behalf of public-interest groups including EFF, PublicKnowledge, and the Home Recording Rights Coalition; library groups including the American Library Association; and industry groups including the Computing and Communications Industry Association and the Consumer Electronics Association. A trial court found Aimster liable for indirect copyright infringement for selling a sort of file-sharing product. The amicus brief was filed with the Court of Appeals that is considering Aimster’s appeal.

The brief does not take a position on whether Aimster should be found liable, but it does argue forcefully that the trial court misinterpreted the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1984 Sony Betamax case. In Betamax, the Supreme Court found that Sony was not liable for selling VCRs, even though VCRs were often used to infringe copyrights. The Court found, essentially, that if a product has both infringing and noninfringing uses, then the product’s maker cannot be held liable simply for selling that product. The Betamax rule has been rehashed in recent cases, including Napster (which was found liable for participating in the infringing activity) and Grokster (which was found not liable under the Betamax rule). How the Betamax rule will be interpreted is one of the key legal issues for would-be designers of innovative media products. Courts have not been entirely consistent in their reading of Betamax.

The new brief urges the Court of Appeals to narrow the lower court’s reading of the Betamax rule. According to the brief, the lower court’s reading of Betamax would impose liability on the makers of common devices such as photocopiers and digital cameras, and the Court of Appeals, regardless of its ultimate decision about Aimster’s liability, should make clear that the lower court misread Betamax.

I won’t write any more on this , since the brief is relatively short and well-written – if I’m not careful, my summary of the brief will be longer than the brief itself!

Thanks for bringing the brief to my attention go to Aimee Deep, who, despite Frank Field’s occasional doubts, appears to really exist.


  1. Freedom to Tinker on EFF Aimster Amicus

    A great summary of the EFF Aimster Amicus brief by a leading digital rights advocate.