To the American consumer it seems obvious: If he wants to videotape a TV show in order to watch it later, it's legal. Now the US Supreme Court has agreed with him.
But the case on which the court ruled, based strictly on existing law, has been tussled over for seven contentious years in the nation's courts. Involved were the rights and power of video recorder manufacturers, and those of actors and TV and film companies that produced the shows being duplicated.
The court was careful to indicate that this decision should not be considered a precedent in other cases. Yet in its ruling it set forth guidelines that might also be considered in other circumstances. It said that home videotaping use was permissible because it was for personal, one-time viewing rather than commercial use, and that this did not demonstrably decrease the market for the copyrighted work - in this case, the TV program being taped.
This issue now goes before Congress; the losing side has vowed to seek changes in existing copyright law in order to make TV videotaping illegal. Congress is thought unlikely to change the law, which was substantially revised in 1978, although in its ruling the Supreme Court said that would be permissible.
Far more than this one video case, however important in itself, is at stake in the overall copyright issue. New technology makes it increasingly easy to copy that which is printed, spoken, or shown.
Issues certain to be debated in the future include taping music at home from the radio, then playing the tape repeatedly (commercial record and tape sales are said to be affected); obtaining TV programs by installing a radar dish on one's property instead of subscribing to a cable network; and reproducing tapes, hi-fi records, books, and sheet music without paying royalties to copyright holders.
This last area is already illegal, yet it is done anyway. Like most imitations - even Cabbage Patch dolls have been illegally copied - these are made to be sold at a cheaper price than the genuine article, and are usually inferior in quality of appearance or sound.
Those who make or knowingly sell such pirated imitations should be vigorously prosecuted. They seek to make a profit by illegally taking business, and thus money, from people who have come up with ideas and merchandised them.
It is quite another story, however, to reproduce TV programs or other items within the home for one's personal use, especially when this does not financially harm those who produced the programs.