Is VHS to DVD Conversion Legal?

Warning: nothing on this page should be considered legal advice. This page is for entertainment purposes only.

We all know the advantages a DVD has over a VHS tape; clarity, longevity, convenience. With the technology available to us today, converting VHS to DVD will only take a few clicks of the button (yes, really!). Wouldn’t it be great if you had DVD copies of all your VHS movies? Of course- but is it legal?

Nowadays many old movies have been released, re-released or re-mastered to DVD. But not all movies have received the same treatment, there will always be that one you want that will never hit the DVD shelves. You have the option to convert your precious (and maybe even last) copy of the VHS movie to DVD. But will you be breaking any law by doing so?

As more and more people get into trouble for doing things like copying and sharing video and audio files over the Internet, the question of whether or not this process is legal remains a valid one.

There are no simple answers. But any answer will ultimately depend on three things.

Where you are from – Not all countries, cities or states have the same laws when it comes to copyrighted material. What’s legal in one place may be illegal in another.

What material you are trying to copy – What’s in the VHS you are trying to convert to DVD? Is it personal like a family home video? Or is it copyrighted material like a commercial movie?

How you plan copy the material – We will take this question up below.

To best clear up confusion we should first understand some of the history behind video cassettes and ‘fair use.’

Fair use

According to the doctrine of Fair Use, which is part of the US Copyright Law, limited use of copyrighted materials without permission from copyright holders can be allowed. This includes copying and recording programs from the TV. But remember that this law only applies to the United States, so while other countries have similar legal provisions it’s always better to research on what you can or cannot copy legally.

The “Betamax Case”

After Sony released the Betamax home entertainment system to the public in 1975, the film industry immediately became wary. They said the device could be used by the public to record TV shows in direct violation of the US Copyright Law.

By then the US Congress had just made amendments to that same law and the companies eventually sued Sony Corp. and their distributors before the US District Court of California the following year. They said the Betamax was a device that could potentially be used for committing copyright infringement and that the defendants were liable for any infringement committed by those who bought and used the Betamax.

What eventually became known as the “Betamax case” would drag on for eight years and go all the way up to the US Supreme Court which finally issued a ruling in the case of Sony Corp. of America versus Universal City Studios, Inc. in 1984. In it’s ruling, the Supreme Court decided that the decision of making individual copies of complete television shows for the purpose of time-shifting – defined as watching the shows later at a time more convenient for the viewer – did not constitute a copyright infringement, but falls under the fair use doctrine.

So yes, you do have the right to transfer recorded VHS tapes of TV programs, as well as your commercial tapes, into a different medium without violating any copyright laws. But a lot of things remain in the gray area and the fair use doctrine does not cover all the instances when you want to copy a tape.

Copy-protection and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

This is part of the US copyright law that enforces two treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization signed in 1996.

One of its provisions is criminalizing the production and dissemination of “technology or devices to circumvent measures designed to control access to copyright works.”

A good example of this is in music. It is illegal for you to remove the Digital Rights Management on your iTunes music file. While you are allowed to copy and transfer your media from one format to another the companies also have the right to put restrictions on how you can do this.

There are a lot of issues with DRM still under debate. One of the more common complaints is from people who cannot play DVD’s bought legally from other regions in the world because the player they are using is set to another region. Others have also resorted to “jailbreaking” phones that are restricted to play music bought only on certain online stores.

Chances are huge that the “Betamax case” will not be that last case of its kind.

Going back to the VHS…
We have already mentioned above that how you copy and transfer is also important to the question of legality. How does this figure in?

Most modern VHS players and tapes have what is called Macrovision, a copy-protection mechanism with encoded signals designed to prevent copying of commercial VHS tapes.

But there is a loophole. This one caused by what you can call a technological circumstance. The older VHS players cannot read these signals so it is perfectly legal for you to use them to copy your VHS tapes and technically you are not breaking any laws. Problem solved, just for that instance anyway.

So can we legally convert VHS to DVD?

We have already mentioned that copyright protection laws vary from country to country. And while the fair use doctrine only applies to the United States there are other laws in the same ambit. It would help to know what is considered legal and illegal where you plan to perform the DVD conversion, as well as what loopholes might be used to your advantage.

Devices that jam Macrovision or circumvent DRM are illegal and you can be sued along with the manufacturers if you get them. But those devices that cannot read Macrovision or DRM ought to not get you in trouble with the law.

So in short, is converting VHS to DVD legal? The answers it yes, but that depends on how you do it.

2 Thoughts on “Is VHS to DVD Conversion Legal?

  1. Lou Finley on November 3, 2013 at 4:56 pm said:

    We have a hundred or so Betamax tapes of commercial movies. We have replaced some of the favorites by buying them in DVD form but there
    are some that are not available on the market in DVDs. Do you have a service that does that? If not, can you recommend one? About how
    expensive is that service?

  2. on December 2, 2013 at 6:17 pm said:

    Lou, if you have a Betamax player, take a look at the VHS To DVD Software page. Most software will allow you to capture from any video source if it includes a video capture device. You just need to have the player to playback your tapes.

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