Washington — In 1976, cable TV stopped getting something for nothing.
That year, system operators began paying a new independent federal agency, the Copyright Royalty Tribunal, a license fee for the use of copyrighted material: movies, series, and other programs that had previously been retransmitted from noncable stations without compensation.
But the issue wasn't settled for good. Now, cable copyright liability is again being discussed on Capitol Hill - a debate centering on whether Washington is interfering too much in the free market. ''If individuals can work it out, the government should not get involved,'' says a congressional aide who works on the issue.
But Barbara Ringer, who was register of copyrights from 1974 to 1980, says, ''It does seem to me the tribunal is here to stay. It will inevitably have more work to do.''
By the early 1970s, it had become clear that a coming explosion in cable TV, satellite dish antennas, and other program dissemination devices would cause truckloads of trouble for the copyright owners of television programs. Cable operators, for instance, would be able to snatch a TV station's signal and rebroadcast it without permission.
''Technology has just engulfed this thing. Copyright owners have lost the ability to control their markets,'' Ms. Ringer says.
As part of the sweeping 1976 copyright law revisions, Congress set up the tribunal in an attempt to make cable owners more accountable. System operators currently pay into the tribunal fund for the right to rebroadcast signals from distant stations. The tribunal, in turn, parcels out the money to copyright holders.
Those who shaped the law suspected their efforts would soon require further revision. As early as 1979, trade groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America were agitating for stiffer statutes, requiring cable to purchase its copyright material on the open market.
The strong growth of the cable industry has made such a position more tenable , and been a major reason for the reopening of the issue.
Cable operators ''are no longer mom-and-pop operations that require special protection, in the eyes of their competitors,'' says a US House of Representatives expert on copyright law.
The need to regulate ''superstations''--broadcast stations beamed all across the country by cable operators--has also shoved Congress toward new laws on cable copyright liability.
But the final push came from last year's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repeal of rules allowing broadcast stations to claim exclusive regional rights for syndicated programs. Broadcasters badly wanted this shield from cable competition, and began yelling for Congress to give it back.
In response to the noise, the House Judiciary Committee last month recommended to the Senate a new cable copyright bill, forged from negotiations between the broadcast representatives and the cable industry.
Broadcasters would be allowed to buy exclusive rights to syndicated series and movies--again making them unavailable to cable. In addition, sports teams would be able to black out cable transmissions of their games within a 35-mile radius.
''We get protection where we need it the most--exclusivity,'' says James Popham, a National Association of Broadcasters vice-president.
The quid for this quo is that cable operators would be permitted to keep the government-administered tribunal copyright system, saving them from costly and time-consuming negotiations with each individual copyright owner.
But the bill faces something less than smooth sailing. The Reagan administration, through FCC officials, has indicated it favors dumping cable operators into the free market with everyone else.
There is some similar feeling on Capitol Hill. Rep. Harold S. Sawyer (R) of Michigan attempted to alter the bill, easing out the current tribunal copyright system by 1985. But he was defeated in committee.
''Cable's not the baby that needs to be protected anymore,'' an aide to Mr. Sawyer says. ''They've got people begging to go on their channels. They don't need protection from negotiations.''
Others claim the alternative is chaos.
James Mooney, executive vice-president of the National Cable Television Association, says many small cable systems ''just wouldn't be able to carry'' the distant network TV stations they typically rebroadcast. The copyright negotiations would be too complex and expensive for them to undertake.
He also points out that pay cable services already compete on the open market for movies and other special programming.
Barbara Ringer says that ''as a bargaining device, the plea for open negotiations is a good ploy,'' allowing broadcasters to get what they really wanted--protection of syndicated programs.
In other areas where copyright law has been leapfrogged by technology, such as video recording and satellite dish antennas, a fee system similar to cable's (tribunal) may be the most workable answer, Ms. Ringer says.