VHS to Digital Conversion

The last movie (“A History of Violence”) that was released commercially on VHS videotape in the United States was in 2006. The last VHS recorder/player was manufactured in 2016.

VHS tapes do not last forever. The estimated usable life of a VHS videotape is approximately 10 years. Even the newest commercial tape is nearing the end of its normal life cycle. The machines necessary to record and play VHS materials are succumbing to digital technology. Essentially VHS is a dying technology.

Academic Technology Services is aware that many of our faculty’s most effective and most important teaching resources are on VHS tapes. We can assist faculty with ways to replace or to convert their own, non-library VHS materials into formats that will allow for continued, high quality, digital use of these essential teaching resources.

What Can You Do to Preserve Your VHS Materials?

VHS users should determine carefully how best to prepare moving forward with digital technology.

  • Faculty immediately should assess their VHS collections to determine which programs are critical and irreplaceable. These might include feature films, documentaries and learning series. Develop a strategy for replacing or converting the material to digital or online.
  • Check if the content is available online on sites such as YouTube, Vimeo or other video streaming sites. Consider bookmarking sites and accessing them directly in class.
  • Educause offers a list of legal online content sources that might be useful.
  • Various collections are available for streaming through the University Libraries and listed on the Streaming Media Guide.
  • Search websites for similar or same materials. Read the sites’ Terms of Use carefully before downloading anything. A better, safer option is to bookmark sites and access them directly in class.
  • Investigate whether a digital version of a program is available for purchase. Purchase classroom media only on DVD, Blu-Ray or digital media such as digital downloads or digital video repositories.
  • Consult with subject librarians to see if a title already is in the Library’s digital media collection or if it can be purchased and added to the collection. The Library is sometimes able to convert a VHS title in its collection to DVD.

If any of the above is not a viable option, faculty can consider having their VHS tapes converted into digital format, such as DVDs or digital files for online use, by Academic Technology Services. Faculty should be reminded that the conversion process can decrease the quality of the video depending upon the quality of the original VHS tape. It also is a lengthy process that happens in real time. Prioritize transfer requests so that, given time considerations, more important or immediately needed materials can be transferred first.


It is illegal to make a digital copy of a copyrighted video except in a few specific circumstances addressed below. However one can make a legal copy under certain strict conditions – if and only if one has the copyright to that video, or has been given permission by the one who actually does hold the copyright to it. ATS will remain vigilant regarding any duplication requests for copyrighted materials.

The University’s Copyright Officer is Hillary Corbett. Working collaboratively with the Office of the General Counsel Hillary addresses questions regarding copyright issues. Hillary can be contacted at  (617) 373-2352 or email her at h.corbett@neu.edu.

Fair Use

Digitizing small portions of a video might fall under Fair Use protection, but copying an entire video would not qualify. Fair Use (Section 107 of the Copyright Act) permits the unlicensed use of copyrighted works in certain circumstances. To determine whether the use of a work  is a fair use, four factors need to be considered including –

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Transferring Your Own Recordings or Recordings You Have Permission to Copy

Materials where the copyright is owned by the faculty member, for example, videos that were self-created, or where the faculty member has been given the permission of the copyright owner are permitted to be converted to digital format. Academic Technology Services reserves the right to ask for documentation of permission from the copyright owner before the transfer takes place.

Transferring Content from VHS Tapes You Have Purchased

It is important to recognize that ownership of a purchased videotape is not the same as owning the rights to make copies of the content and intellectual property contained within. Title 17, Section 202 of the copyright law states that ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied. Transfer of ownership of any material object, including the copy or phonorecord in which the work is first fixed, does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work embodied in the object.

Faculty should determine who holds the copyright for their purchased videotapes. If not sure where to begin, contact the producer of the program to find out who holds the copyright. The producer may be able to grant you the right to reproduce the program either without charge or may require you to purchase the rights. Or the producer may refer you to others. Some programs may have multiple copyrights – portions may belong to musicians, artists, photographers or other content providers. If the copyright holders deny permission for digitizing their work, you cannot make the copy.

Recordings Made from Television Programs

Material that was recorded off-air from television programs are covered under specific guidelines for nonprofit educational institutions. Among the stipulations are only programs which are broadcast to the general public may be recorded. Programs from cable services such as HBO, Showtime, ESPN, and the like are not permitted to be recorded. The tape cannot be altered in any way, including edited to take out commercial announcements or to create an anthology or compilation. After 45 calendar days the tape must be destroyed if not purchased or licensed.

Copyright law prohibits the copying of illegal or illegally obtained materials. Any request to convert an off-air recording on VHS tape that does not meet these requirements and has not been licensed or purchased would be considered illegal and any request for ATS to convert the program to digital must be denied. Faculty can contact the production company or the TV station that aired the program to see if they offer the program on DVD.


One technical concern that would prevent the transfer from VHS to digital is Macrovision. Macrovision coding, common in many commercially produced VHS recordings, introduces deliberate errors into a videotape’s output signal. Although these errors are ignored by most television sets, they do interfere with and prevent re-recording a program. Digital recorders are mandated by law to detect Macrovision and prevent recording.

Quick Chart to Determine How to Replace Your VHS Tapes

Chart describing the work flow for determining whether VHS materials can be converted to digital formats.

Use this chart to determine whether you can have your VHS materials converted to digital formats.


Copyright is complicated, but if you have any questions, ATS can walk you through considerations and help you understand the best path forward. For more information about transferring VHS tapes to digital formats contact Academic Technology Services, 212 Snell Library. ATS@neu.edu

Please note that the information on this webpage is based on professional practices and opinions and is not intended as legal advice.

For more information about copyright issues contact Hillary Corbett, University Copyright Officer, h.corbett@neu.edu or the Office of the General Counsel, office_of_the_general_counsel@neu.edu