US Supreme Court sides with Sony in videotaping case

You know that videocassette recorder you bought last year, when they went on sale for $399? You said you were going to record PBS programs, news documentaries, that sort of thing - though secretly you just wanted to stockpile reruns of M*A*S*H.

Well, you may be relieved to know that the US Supreme Court has just decided that you're not breaking the law when you push the ''record'' button. By a 5-to- 4 vote, the court has ruled that home taping off television airwaves is not, in effect, theft of a TV show producer's property.

But the bitter fight over the videotape issue (it might best be subtitled ''Battle of the Video Lobbyists'') is sure to continue in the halls of Congress. Other fights, over other technologies, may follow.

The legal status of home recording ''is only one of the many problems posed by new technologies, which often outstrip the power of current laws to control them,'' says Andrew Schwartzman, head of the public-interest group Media Access Project.

For the moment, the videocassette recorder (VCR) industry and its cohort, retail outlets, are beaming about a hard-fought legal victory over their archfoes, Hollywood producers. If the Supreme Court had decided that home taping was, indeed, a copyright infringement, some sort of tax on video recorders or tapes would almost surely have followed. VCR manufactuers might have been forced to pay millions in fines or back royalties.

''We think it's a victory for the consumer, as well as our industry,'' chortles Alan Schlosser, spokesman for the Home Recording Rights Coalition, an alliance of video firms.

Specifically, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which held two years ago that Sony Corporation, by virtue of its being a VCR maker, was infringing on the copyrights of complainants Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said that US copyrights do not give their owners ''complete control over all possible uses'' of an artistic work. Home taping, he said, is a ''fair use'' similar to borrowing library books. And VCRs, pointed out Justice Stevens, have functions besides recording - playing rented movies, for example.

The forces of the producers, led by Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti, still contend that home taping ''steals'' their property. Congress, says one producer ally, is the next battlefield.

Indeed, Justice Stevens said that Congress ''may take a fresh look at this new technology.''

Stevens admitted, however, that the high court must be ''circumspect'' when dealing with a subject Congress couldn't have foreseen when it drew up US copyright statutes.

And there is at least a slight chance that Congress will eventually reverse the Supreme Court decision.

Bills now pending in both chambers would require a tax on video equipment, with revenues to be distributed to copyright owners.

These bills had been getting nowhere, pending the high court ruling on the issue. Now that the air has cleared, says an aide to Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, sponsor of one of the bills, Congress is much more likely to consider the issue.

''Our basic approach will remain unchanged,'' says the aide.

In general, says Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, Congress has yet to address how new technologies such as VCRs affect the rights of actors, writers, and other artists.

New methods of distribution - video recorders, home satellite dishes, cable TV - all have the potential of ''dramatic negative impacts'' on artists, says Schwartzman. ''Ultimately, they're much more threatened than the large producers.''

And even broader questions raised by new technology await Congress in coming months and years. Currently there is little law govering use of home satellite dishes, for instance. Cable-TV regulation is also up for overhaul. Even thinking about the implications of high-speed computer data transmissions is enough to make congressional communications law aides grow faint.

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