That’s right – Beta tapes were being produced after the turn of the millennium. Anyone born in the 90’s or later probably has no memory of the physical tapes, but they hold a very important place in physical storage history and copyright law.
The Betamax was released in 1975, first in Japan and then shortly after in America. The original machines were similar to early Apple computers in that they included both the recorder and a 19-inch screen. As one of the first video-recording devices suitable for use in the home, it was really revolutionary technology. Then everything changed in 1976 when JVC released its rival technology, the VHS tape, which launched an all-out war in the product category.
Sony wanted to make Betamax the standard format, however JVC decided to charge ahead with VHS because of its prior experience with U-Matic, the predecessor technology which was too bulky and expensive for wide-spread consumer use. The two companies had cooperated on developing and marketing U-Matic, but JVC felt Sony benefited more from the partnership.
The following battle for market share turned into one of the most studied cases in marketing and business history. Betamax was by many accounts the superior technology, with slightly better video quality, better sound, and more imagine stability. Sony is widely believed to have misjudged the home-recording market when it limited Beta tapes to one hour in length, whereas VHS tapes could record more than twice that. Pricing also had a huge impact on the debate, with Betamax recorders typically costing about $100 more than a VHS system. Simply put, Sony did not listen to consumer demand.
The legacy of the Betamax also extends into the legal realm. In 1984, The US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the technology in the case Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios. The court determined home videotaping was legal because VCRs had substantial noninfringing uses. The ruling was later cited in subsequent cases involving peer-to-peer file sharing software.
Sony continued to produce Betamax recorders until 2002, despite being long-supplanted by the VHS and then DVD formats. Beta tapes had some limited use professionally, especially as a medium for video archiving. But those days will officially come to an end in early 2016.
The Betamax saga is a rich part of geek, technological, and legal histories. It shows just how far we’ve come from the days of watching videos in movie theatres or over-the-air TV waves. BBC video editor Pete Doherty put it succinctly in the British network’s article on the story, ‘[Beta] represents the time when we were just beginning to watch things on demand. If you missed a programme on TV before that, you just had to wait for the repeat.”