The Betamax Wars - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Betamax Wars

I saw the first Star Wars movie — sorry, I cannot think of it as Episode IV — in my friend Rusty’s Venice, California, living room on a TV hooked up to a Sony Betamax video recorder. Was the machine already called a VCR? I don’t remember. It was 1977. Rusty was a private investigator.

Graceful for all its hulking bulk, the Betamax, the first successful home video recorder, had the movie and television industry scared to death. If any old vid geek at home could record a movie off-air and then keep it and run it whenever he wanted, what would happen to ticket prices? To release schedules? To syndication deals with network TV?

To the point, the movie industry thought it was getting cheated: It should get paid for any and all re-playing of its products. Television production companies felt the same way. Typically, both overlooked a far greater threat: of time-shifting, of viewing on demand, and of fast-forwarding through commercials.

The Los Angeles movie studios had bought Rusty two of the then-very expensive Betamax machines, and Rusty was delightedly “running a pretext” — pretending to be a video hobbyist. As such, he tooled all over Los Angeles, trading tapes and lore with other video collectors, many of whom looked alarmingly like Groover McToober from Zap Comix. Rusty, undercover agent, had infiltrated the underworld conspiracy that threatened, truth, justice, and the monopoly of the movies.

Rusty used to bring me along to visit the collectors because I reinforced the pretext. No one could have looked less like a cop, and there was some paranoia in the air.

TODAY THAT PARANOIA IS MUCH WORSE, what with the ability of music and video companies’ agents to spy on-line. My friend Rusty actually hauled several of those Groover McToobers into court to testify about their dastardly thieving ways. None, so far as I know, ever got penalized for accumulating back episodes of Rawhide or I Love Lucy. And, ultimately, the movie and TV studios never came close to getting what they wanted, which was a per-cassette fee paid to them by Sony, plus a per-Betamax sales tariff.

Today, with no more complicated or elevated motives, media companies have actually levied fines on music and video downloaders. The courts have mainly held with and for the media companies, and the old wide open and wooly early days of free music and movie downloading have at least been restricted. Some sort of commercial market, still very convenient, has come into existence on the still-very-new Internet.

In contrast to the Betamax, which was quite expensive (so were video cassettes in the 1970s) and which could do only one thing, today’s download technologies are very cheap. The fees can mount up, even in increments of a few cents, and that may be about the best the media companies can hope for — that, and that the current situation lasts for a while so they can wring the last of the old-style dollars out of today’s exchanges.

BECAUSE ULTIMATELY THE TECHNOLOGY itself will win. That’s the lesson of the old Betamax wars. The Betamax, long gone as a machine and even as a format, gave way to the movie industry’s worst fear: a vibrant market in the purchase and rental of an established video format (VHS) and the widely remarked decline of movie going and traditional TV watching. Even the venerable TV Guide magazine has had to fold permanently as a program guide. New video has simply grown too big even to write down and print once a week.

I entirely sympathize with songwriters, script writers, directors, producers and the like who worry that the Internet makes possible the piracy of their product. Even court orders and laws will be swept away by the bandwidth juggernaut, and an entirely new kind of product distribution will take over.

We’re just now in the interim stage — kind of the equivalent of a copy shop on every corner, a phenomenon that last only about ten years. Video rental stores look increasingly like business dinosaurs. “Record” stores, so called, will turn into horse and buggy novelties. CD and DVD players may hang on, gathering dust like my old turntable.

No, the technology itself will win. We just don’t know how yet.

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