Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright

Lucas Hilderbrand,
Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009
ISBN: 978 0 8223 4376 9
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

In his introduction to Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, Lucas Hilderbrand (Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at UC-Irvine) writes that he was inspired to compose this study of VHS and VCR technology after viewing the 1987 bootleg cult film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story(an earlier version of the chapter on this cult film was published in 2004 in Camera Obscura). More specifically, it was the consideration of the piracy and aesthetic issues that helped Hilderbrand to create a text that “seeks to rethink videotape’s recent history from the vantage point of a cultural moment when DVD … eclipsed videotape as the primary home video format and when both the entertainment industry and the government have sought to clamp down on ‘piracy’” (p. xi). An enjoyable read because of its combination of historical fact and anecdotal remembrances, Inherent Vice attempts to situate “videotape and VCRs culturally – through popular rhetoric, market shifts, legal regulations, and love stories” (p. xi). As scholarship, its goal is to fill the gap created by cinema studies that rarely investigate the history of video technology in dialogue with both aesthetic and legal issues, using, loosely, the techniques of media archaeology, albeit the text is less about thesis and/or theory and is more oriented towards the anecdotal and personal. An extremely reader friendly author, Hilderbrand maps out the argument carefully in his Preface, with the opening chapter narrating the history of VHS and VCR technology; the second chapter positing the effects of copyright arguments on its evolution; the third through fifth chapters taking up various case studies (bootleg studies) which further illustrate the copyright-technological development relationship; and the epilogue (originally published in 2007 in Film Quarterly) being a study of YouTube, a recent video technology, in the same light. Hilderbrand also includes a copyright/magnetic tape timeline, as well as a Notes section which is just as fascinating and informative as the text itself.

Unfortunately, it is these case studies – two of which come across as idiosyncratic and non-representative, which threaten to weaken an otherwise solid work of scholarship. Certainly the case study of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, which Hilderbrand does an admirable job of summarizing and historicizing, merits inclusion in any text about videotape’s challenges to copyright law. However, the decision to include case studies of the aforementioned Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (USA 1987) and the Joanie 4 Jackie video chainletter project seem almost self-defeating. While these two texts hold some fascination for Hilderbrand, they hardly seem the best possible examples of the videotape vs. copyright issue, videotape aesthetics, or the home video revolution. Granted, Superstar was voted by Entertainment Weekly as No. 45 on the “Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time” list, but like Joanie 4 Jackie, as a case study it comes across as a pet project chapter; in no way does either seem organic to the text, obviously an irony, considering Superstar inspired the writing. Perhaps this is the nature of the beast when it comes to dissertations that are later turned into books. Theories about the best types of case studies for scholarly texts aside, Hilderbrand recovers nicely in the epilogue, which brings the videotape revolution full-circle, back to the home video phenomenon which YouTube has become. He offers no hard and fast answers here, as the copyright issues inspired by YouTube sharing are only in their infancy, but he does set the stage for arguments to come.

With the exception of the aforementioned case studies and the sometimes too-insistent metaphorical language attempting to portray videotape as erotic, Hilderbrand’s labor of love is a solid work of scholarship. A particular strength of Inherent Vice is that Hilderbrand examines VHS tape as a new media – a continuity, collaboration, and co-existing of previous and future technologies, marking the point of intersection where new media and old media briefly compete for market share. In that respect, the text offers an opportunity to take a backward glance at the evolution of analog technologies in order to better predict and “understand the potential innovations and actual limitations of digital ones” (p. 11). To get his point across, Hilderbrand explains the physical makeup of analog tapes in order to illustrate the concepts of “artifacts” (the production of soon-to-be-antiquated collectibles) and “specificity” (the particular qualities inimical to those collectibles), both of which are introduced by any new technology. As Hilderbrand points out, home video has always been a formatting technology, meaning that by its very nature it reformats everything recorded onto it. Like audiotape, also a reformatting technology according to Hilderbrand, it trades quality and longevity for control and access. Cultural significance is also discussed. For example, the text takes readers into Korean and Japanese markets located in California, showing the ethnic differences in technological adaptation (as of the publication date, VHS was still relevant in some cultures, as in Korean markets, in the form of diasporic bootlegs, but was not relevant in others, as in Japanese markets).

Hilderbrand also takes a bit of a sociological view at times, studying “video’s interventions into the ways audiences use and experience the media” (p. xvi). The text narrates the tale of VHS, from its humble beginnings when home video became a craze (as VHS was originally intended for private recording and viewing), to its ushering in the idea of widespread public use of pre-recorded for rental and for purchase video. Along that route, Hilderbrand tracks the implications of time-shifting in viewing, or the ability of taping to allow audiences and viewers to control their viewing schedule, citing important technological and media moments, such as the early Sony Betamax ad encouraging viewers to “Watch Whatever Whenever”. Hilderbrand’s central aesthetics argument is that ultimately users began to see video as videotape, meaning that the idiosyncrasies of videotape became inextricable from the idea of a recorded video image. In this respect, Hilderbrand argues, studying VCR tapes can lead to both personal and cultural-historical histories of a consumer culture where viewers accept that video reproductions “exchange aura for access” (p. 15).

Inherent Vice also chronicles “intersections of copyright regulations and video practices” (p. xvi). This discussion begins early on, in the Introduction, “The Aesthetics of Access,” where Hilderbrand tracks not only the influence of the private financial gain vs. public good via greater access argument integral to the copyright debate, but also how the “…formal and legal issues demonstrate how home recording contributed to the legal definition of fair use” (6). In accessible prose, he narrates how home video became widely available in the 1970s and into the 1980s, eventually leading up to the landmark legal case of Sony v. Universal (1976-84), commonly known as the “Betamax Case.” As with most copyright infringement cases, Sony v. Universal hinged on the idea of the public interest, as weighed against private profit, with the underlying principle that in the United States, “the principle of access is foundational to both copyright and videotape and in effect unites them in spirit and practice” (p. 17). The Betamax case created the possibility for a videotape market when in 1984 the Supreme Court ruled that off-air taping was legal – a watershed event for the home videotape industry by anyone’s definition. Based on the idea that videotape technologies were not intended for piracy-related uses, and that only the illegal misuse of the technologies resulted in piracy, the Court paved the way for quickly-paced technological advances in Beta and VHS technologies, and the price of VCRs soon dropped below $300.00, thereby making the technology a feasible one for competitors. Inherent Vice chronicles the battle between the three players in the videotape recorder industry by the 1950s: Sony, Matsushita Electric, and Toshiba. While Sony issued the Betamax system, Matushita teamed with JVC and RCA to introduce VHS. The text traces how Sony’s exclusive format and weaker technology ultimately helped cause the beta downfall. Meanwhile, VHS technology became the standard because VCRs became smaller and smaller, and VHS tapes allowed for longer recording sessions (in addition, Betamax systems were unnecessarily complex). As Hilderbrand notes, home video introduced a residual market for popular feature films, so that the scales finally tipped with the introduction of for-sale children’s VHS movies in hard plastic (in fact, the author discusses at some length the role of plastics manufacture and development on the videotape industry), colorful containers. In short, as Hilderbrand puts it, VCRs stayed viable by constantly responding to the needs and habits of consumers, often mirroring audio technology.

Hilderbrand does an excellent job not only of giving a historical perspective of the legal issues involved, but he looks at the complexities caused by the nature of videotape technology. His argument is that the ephemeral nature of videotape vs. the longevity of copyright causes access and preservation issues. Using the same basis for argument, he examines the 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), which in his opinion makes copyright more restrictive and therefore hurts the public good. Inherent Vice posits that DMCA, characterized as a short-sighted attempt by the U.S. government to catch up copyright law to the digital revolution, has to some extent “overwritten fair use” (p. 20). In essence, DMCA flies in the face of the constitutional definition of copyright, so that “… in practice the copyright code [operates] more like a property law” (p. 81). Hilderbrand’s sympathies mirror the spirit of Fair Use, and goes a bit further; he openly advocates access that includes academic and everyday uses of data. He challenges the interchangeable use of terms like “piracy” (which is a for-profit practice) and “bootlegging” (which is a matter of aesthetics and access), deftly and convincingly arguing that they are not synonymous concepts. Furthermore, the text illuminates the psychology behind bootlegging, explaining that by its very nature the practice foregrounds the recordable nature of videotape, and has a certain appeal to cult collectors. Hilderbrand also challenges the belief that bootlegging, copying, and file sharing (as well as bit sharing) hurt the music industry, countering by citing Michael Chanan’s 1995 argument that home taping actually increases music circulation, and therefore increases sales and revenues.

Tony Fonseca,
Nicholls State University, USA.

Created on: Sunday, 18 April 2010