As you know from the disclaimers at the end of TV programs and the beginnings of DVDs, recording an episode of "Monday Night Football" could land you in hot water -- but only if your use of the recording crosses a line. Charging a bunch of strangers to come watch a game you recorded is definitely bad. Less obvious acts of recording and transferring TV shows fall into a more gray area. Be sure to discuss your particular circumstance with an attorney. Meanwhile, some guidelines can help you gauge your situation.
Under the fair use doctrine, individuals, such as artists, teachers or scientists, are allowed to reference others' copyrighted work and expand upon it. For example, a book reviewer can quote portions of a book in order to write a meaningful review or to make certain points about the book. The doctrine also permits private, non-commercial use of material that you're entitled to possess, like a DVD you bought or a TV show that's been broadcast into your home.
In the United States, you are generally allowed to record TV programs to DVD, DVR or any other recording device for home viewing. Recording a show to watch it at a later date or time is known as “time shifting." The Supreme Court holds that time shifting is legal and protected under the fair use doctrine. However, once your actions leave the strict purview of time shifting -- e.g., recording a program and keeping it after you've already watched it -- the legality becomes less clear.
When it comes to transferring a TV recording to a DVD, how you plan to use the DVD will largely determine whether it is fair use. By permitting TV recording under the fair use doctrine, the Supreme Court did not intend for people to create libraries of recordings, which could prevent the copyright holder from rightfully profiting from her work. For example, giving a recorded DVD to another person is copyright infringement. Publicly showing a recorded program without the copyright owner's permission -- for example, without "the express written consent of the Commissioner of Baseball" -- is also illegal.
Simply owning a DVD of a TV program that you recorded is not inherently illegal. Time-shifting permits such copies. Under digital rights management licenses, you are also allowed to keep back-ups of movies and music that you buy. If you are writing a review or a paper on a TV program, you may also record and use the recording -- to a limited extent -- in your work. A good rule is this: if you are recording a TV program for any reason other than to watch it later and delete it, consult with an attorney. It's better to be safe than fined. Or jailed.
Copyright Infringement Penalties
Copyright infringement is no joke. The civil penalties can include restraining orders, monetary damages and in some cases, reimbursement of the copyright holder's attorney fees. In cases where the violation is egregious, it may be considered criminal copyright infringement. Depending on how intentional and serious the act is, criminal infringement could get a violator as many as 10 years in jail, along with a fine of up to $1,000,000.
Read More: How to Avoid Copyright Infringement When Writing a Book
- Digital Media Law Project: Fair Use
- Cornell University Law School: SONY CORP. OF AMER. v. UNIVERSAL CITY STUDIOS, INC., 464 U.S. 417 (1984)
- University of California at Davis Law Review: Lost in Transitory Duration: A Look at Cartoon Network v. CSC Holdings, Inc. and Its Implications for Future Copyright Infringement Cases
- Electronic Frontier Foundation: Digital Rights Management
- Cornell University Law School: Damages for Copyright Infringement
- U.S. Copyright Office: Violation of Digital Millennium Copyright Act, p. 7
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images