The Supreme Court is struggling with a choice between Americans' freedom to tape TV programs for replay at home and Hollywood's right to profit from its work.
The questions arise in a major copyright case in debate before the high court which centers on 5 million home video recorders now in use in the United States. The case also raises issues affecting books, music, and new technologies.
Stephen Kroft, a lawyer for two movie studios suing Sony Corporation of America over its Betamax recorder, told the justices that manufacturers of machines that copy TV shows without compensating the shows' creators are committing ''commercial piracy.'' Universal City Studios Inc. and Walt Disney Productions say manufacturers of video recording machines - a $3 billion-a-year business - should be held liable for copyright infringement. A federal appeals court in San Francisco agreed.
But Sony says neither manufacturers nor consumers are at fault. Sony lawyer Dean Dunlavey argues that the broadcast is in effect ''implied consent'' that the programs can be taped for replay in the home at a later, more convenient time, a process called ''time shifting.''
The justices divided their time between two issues in the case: whether videotaping TV shows for in-home use violates the copyright laws and, if so, whether the makers of the recording machines are responsible for damages. The court's decision is expected by July, but likely will not be the last word on the controversial topic.
Congress has in the works contingency plans to rewrite the copyright law if the court's finding is not to its liking. The options include permitting taping of TV shows specifically for in-home use or establishing a royalty surcharge on cassettes or recorders to compensate copyright owners.