Q.  With the increased use of DVD systems it has been suggested that we convert our VHS library of educational videos in VHS format to DVD.  Is it a copyright violation to convert to DVD and discontinue use of the VHS tapes?

A. In most cases, yes, it would be a copyright violation.  Reproducing a VHS to DVD without the prior permission of the rights-holder is an infringement of copyright.  This kind of reproduction is not exempt because it is not "fair use" as defined in Section 107 of the Copyright Code and it does not qualify as a lawful reproduction under Section 108 of the Copyright Code.

However, in a situation where the VHS tape is lost, stolen or deteriorating or is in an obsolete format (a 3/4" tape is obsolete because the equipment is no longer being sold, but a VHS tape is not obsolete) and is not available in the DVD format in the market for a reasonable cost, the library can make a reproduction.  But if the reproduction is in a digital format (DVD is digital), then that copy cannot leave the library premises.



I’m not so sure that the answer to the VHS to DVD question is quite complete.  Fair Use (in Sec 107) and Sec 108 (which provides for relief where library missions conflict with a strict copyright adherence) may in fact justify transferring a collection, even proactively, to a new format, especially if the VHS tapes are not available otherwise.  VHS is now an obsolete format, and both section 107 and 108 may indeed provide for cases where VHS tapes can lawfully be transferred to new formats.  It might be wise for the writer of this question to consult a copyright expert — such as Peter Jaszi at the Washington College of Law, American University, whose specialty in IP and copyright has widened to include special areas such as libraries.  He spoke on a panel  with Peter Hirtle at the SAA conference in DC in mid-August 2010.

This is a slightly different take, but years ago I heard it was okay to re-record a VHS and circulate the copy as long as you kept the original. We have burned some original DVD movies to DVD, kept the original and circulated the copy. Is this that much different from changing formats - VHS to DVD?

I suppose an answer to your reply is, "what does ‘obsolete’ mean?"  There are producers of educational films that still produce VHS.  It is not an obsolete format.  How can you transfer from vhs to dvd when you say "even if the vhs tapes are not available otherwise"???  You cannot claim fair use even if a copy of the film is no longer produced in vhs; if the film is available in dvd, you need to purchase that dvd, not make a copy of it. If it’s not, that still doesn’t mean the producer has surrendered the rights to the film.

I was reading this article about the vhs to dvd conversion and couldn’t help but laugh. it would make far more sense for a library to convert its vhs to xvid or mp4 being as they are the most widely used formats. then they could serve these files up inside the library on the local area network. One should also note that many corporations have deemed vpn and ssh networks internal company property and trespassing is one of the many charges that go with it. Therefore the argument could be made that as long as a login server is used it would place the content inside the boundries of the libraries property lines. The best part is that it would cost less than a dollar per user to run it at godaddy with the average user taking 5 hours of video per day! if one could convince mpaa to allow the conversions with a 10-20yr buffer to help ensure fair chance to profit for artists, ssh could likely satisfy the library premises restriction. Plus then maybe netflix could actually have the movies people wnat to watch. but thats just my thoughts. I would love to hear yours regarding the challenges and possible workarounds that libraries would encounter during this lagging yet inevitable endeavor. I’m sure someday library of congress will get around to making a national video archive of all movies, the question is why havent they started already, nobody buys vhs except poor people like me!

I’m not surprised VHS hasn’t been ruled obsolete by the Copyright Office, because I’ve heard through the grapevine that some companies are still submitting works for copyright on VHS, using up their stock until they can switch to a direct file submission process. It’s a time of flux in the moving image format world, and right now the copyright office is struggling to establish standards and catch up. I think it’s happening, though. Just slowly!

In related news, I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but please don’t rely on burned DVDs to solve all your space problems, regardless of the legality. Their shelf life is very short and they are prone to total loss at the drop of a hat, rather than the gradual degradation of a video. I’m sure you all are familiar with the concept of continuous data migration, and that’s the only way a DVD-R should be used: as a short intermediary step in a migration process.


Does anyone have a sample copyright statement to put on/near such a machine?  Does it need to be at all different from the kind of thing we put by paper copy machines?


Could we get an update to this question? As reflected in the comments as we went from 2010 to 2014, VHS has become obscure, if not obsolete. I would say it is obsolete, as our VHS tapes are not circulating. Rather than throw some away (literally) I would like to transfer to DVD and then circulate those copies, retaining the VHS as proof of ownership. I have already purchased several titles that are commercially available on DVD, but there are several titles where they are not available. I found one of the VHS titles in Worldcat on DVD in a Canadian university library where they had transferred it to DVD and created a record in OCLC for the DVD version, with a note saying it was transferred from VHS. 

The copyright law seems clear to me. If I have tried to replace it in the newer format and can't, I have the legal right to move it to a new medium and use that copy exactly the same way I used the original. I don't understand where this "must remain in the building" language comes from.

Could we please get a legal expert to comment on this, or get a legal opinion from ALA?


Two things have been left out in this discussion. In the Supreme Court ruling in Universal v Sony Betamax, the Court ruled that anything recorded from the free airwaves or a source you pay through, such as cable or satellite, can be recorded for private use only. Also you can make ONE archival copy of anything you legally own. A couple of posts have mentioned making a copy and circulating it, but that would be a copyright infringement. You can't distribute in any way any copyrighted materials without permission. Even loaning tapes/ dvds/ blu-rays can be considered illegal distribution.

One archival copy does not restrict you from converting from VHS to DVD since the decision did not restrict that conversion. Just use your VHS copy up before using your archived DVD as a new copy, and do not make copies for anyone else. Follow these rules and you will be fine.

And BTW for the person who said that DVDs degrade over a few years, you have your facts mixed up. Digital is good for an eternity. Multiple copying can degrade the copy during the transfer, but the original digital copy doesn't as it is read by light, not a needle as phonographs are read, or disc heads like cassette, 8 track, Betamax and DVDs are read. They all take a little away every time they are read, but digital is not a contact medium.

When it comes to matters involving digital audio and video technologies I always ask professional in this field like Abe's of Maine. You can also send them a tweet on their Twitter profile. To contact Abe's of Maine on Twitter just click on the link.