- Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright
Even in the beginning there was the aura of magnetic tape as outlaw—as one wag quipped, the VC in VCR stands for Viet Cong.1 Before World War II, Bell Labs suppressed its own research into magnetic recording. During the war, the Americans confiscated fully developed reel-to-reel magnetic audio recordings from the Nazis. Afterward, Bing Crosby used this technology to escape the tyranny of NBC. Audio magnetic tape was an irritant, and the music industry actually got the US government to enact the Record Rental Amendment Act of 1984 to discourage people from taping rented records onto their cassettes. Video had just the same sordid reputation as audiotape when Sony introduced it to consumers in 1971, first as a 3/4-inch U-matic cassette and subsequently, in 1975, as a 1/2-inch Betamax cassette. Pornographers quickly embraced the U-matic, and they created the infrastructure for tape exchanges and video rental stores. When stores started to rent mainstream feature films, Hollywood was not amused.
With Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, Lucas Hilderbrand has delivered a book that looks at a wide range of events that showed the "radical potential" of video, events that are loosely linked by the overarching theme of vice. Initially, I wondered whether the subversive nature of magnetic recording inspired the improvised bricolage format of Hilderbrand's book. A second thought was that Hilderbrand must have hoped his book would shape a new field of studies and determined that the way to do this was to leapfrog from one case study to another. The book begins with the familiar 1984 Supreme Court case of Sony v. Universal, and then proceeds to the utterly fascinating story of CBS trying unsuccessfully to stop Vanderbilt University from compiling its video news archive in the early 1970s. Nothing stopped Richard Carpenter from asserting his copyright over the music in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) and thereby getting Todd Haynes to cease and desist from distributing his first film, which nonetheless launched his directorial [End Page 184] career. Hilderbrand's fourth case study centers on the creation and distribution of the video chain letter Joanie 4 Jackie (intermittent since 1995). The concluding chapter is about YouTube and how this Internet site continues previous subversions.
Another way to look at the organization of this book is that it turns on a pivot: Hilderbrand shifts from retelling stories of past triumphs for fair use in the first two case studies to celebrating more recent acts of appropriation in the second half. The question that lingers over the conclusion is, how important are these acts? The expansion of fair use in the 1970s and early 1980s no longer seems to influence policy decisions as we move into the digital age—away from TV screens and toward computer, phone, and tablet screens—while smaller acts of appropriation continue to be subject to corporate harassment, such as Viacom's recent suit against Google's YouTube.
Hilderbrand's discussion of fair use is based on the lawsuit launched in 1976 against Sony, as several Hollywood companies (led by Universal) tried unsuccessfully to argue that the video cassette recorder (VCR) was a machine that contributed to copyright infringement. It was fought all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1984 the Court ruled in favor of the VCR. Hilderbrand also focuses on a case that began in 1968, when a conservative salesman, affiliated with Vanderbilt University, started the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, in the first effort to preserve nightly newscasts systematically. CBS objected to the loss of control of its own copyrighted news programs, while Senator Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) maneuvered to exempt the Vanderbilt archive from copyright liability under the 1976 Copyright Act. There is more than a hint here that resentment of the evening news coverage of controversial subjects such as Vietnam and Watergate motivated the Republican initiative. These cases, detailed in two chapters, were the last times official government agencies worked...