Libraries, Video Rentals, and Copyright

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  • Ok, so a friend of mine and I were having a discussion. He is under the impression that its quite legal to rent a movie from a store, make a personal copy of it, and watch it as often as he likes, as long as he keeps the copy for himself and isn't trying to sell it. He likens it to being able to go to a library and photocopying an entire book.

    Now, I think he's bonkers, and flat out wrong. But I don't know enough about copyright to rebuff him. What I do know, makes me believe he is wrong, but I figured I'd ask here, as you all seem to know much more than I.
  • The two situations your friend sites -- copying a videotape and copying an entire book from the library -- really are analogous, since both would be permitted, if they are permitted, by the fair use exception to the US copyright law. It is a hotly debated issue whether or not fair use includes all types of personal copying. The Supreme Court in Sony v. Universal Pictures clearly indicated that some personal copying -- copying an entire TV broadcast for later viewing, so-called "time-shifting" -- was fair use. But they seemed to indicate that another form of personal copying, to build a permanent library of recordings (similar to what your friend is doing), might not be fair use.

    The issue is particularly contentious about personal copies of digital music files. A lawyer for the recording industry suggested in court recently that "ripping" a DVD in order to have a copy of the music for personal use on an MP3 player was infringement, while many believe that that is fair use (the RIAA later backed off that claim a bit). In US law the extent of permissible personal copying under fair use is simply an unresolved and disputed issue.

    An added complication might arise if your friend agreed to particular terms of use when he signed a rental agreement with the video store (or Netflix) as a condition for obtaining a rental card. There may be contractual conditions that would prevent this copying even if it might fall under fair use. The store might be compelled to impose such conditions on users as a condition of its rental of the stock it subsequently offers to the public. No such restrictions are imposed by libraries on book borrowers.

    Personally, I would not do what your friend suggests; I think it skates too close to that invisible line in fair use. I can't say that it is bonkers or flat out wrong, but I do think it is opportunistic and clearly designed to avoid purchasing a product that is readily available on the commercial market. In that sense it is different than the book copying, at least if the book in question is out-of-print and hard to obtain otherwise, so the fair use argument might be more against the DVD copying than it is in regard to many library books.

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