ONE of the subplots in the continuing drama of Japan's trade relations with the United States has been the controversy over a new kind of tape recording technology. Digital audio tape (DAT) will, depending on one's point of view, either enhance the listening pleasure of American music lovers by a quantum leap or destroy the American music industry. DAT technology provides the superb sound quality of compact discs with the convenience and recording capability of tape recorders. DAT recorders are expected to be introduced into the United States later this year. With them, music lovers will be able to make from compact discs or live performances tapes that are virtually equivalent to the studio master tapes used to manufacture records.
The nation's musicians and record manufacturers are worried that homemade or pirated DAT recordings will cut into record sales. A college sorority with access to a DAT recorder, for instance, might buy one compact disc by the latest heartthrob and a couple of dozen blank digital tapes. Before long every woman in the house would have her own homemade tape and - pfft! - the manufacturer would lose out on 24 sales of a big hit record.
The music industry had the same concern about earlier forms of tape recording when they became available to consumers. But in using so-called ``analog'' technology, the home taper gave up a certain amount of sound quality; true audiophiles were likely to break down and buy a disc, and this mollified the industry somewhat.
But with its excellent sound quality, digital technology is seen as a threat of a new order - all the more so because the factories are not yet up and running to produce prerecorded digital tapes. The owner of a videocassette recorder can buy or rent videotapes of movies. The owner of a compact disc player can load up with the little discs at the same record store where he once bought vinyl LPs. But about all the owner of a DAT recorder can do is make tapes from other media, thereby cutting into record sales and into singers' royalties.
What's to be done?
Recordings can be protected from unauthorized copying with an electronic ``notch'' over which a DAT machine would stumble, unable to record the music. The music industry is pushing for a requirement that when DAT recorders are introduced into the United States, they contain a microchip that reads these notches.
But the manufacturers of the machines - all of them Japanese, which is why it has become a trade issue - are resisting the hobbling of their hardware this way. So are some consumer groups in this country, who argue that active home tapers are already active buyers of music in other formats. It is also suggested that the entertainment industry has a history of crying wolf as new technologies are introduced - film, radio, television, cable television, videocassette recording - and then going on to make money from them.
The music industry, meanwhile, argues that over $1.5 billion in record sales is already lost annually to analog home taping, and that the situation will get worse with digital tape.
Most record albums don't make money, the industry says, and the megaprofits from a Bruce Springsteen or a Stevie Wonder are what enables a record label to absorb losses on recordings by classical, jazz, and folk musicians. American music is a world-class export product; Japanese electronics manufacturers should be as sensitive to the intellectual property rights of American artists as they are to those of their compatriots.
Bills requiring the scanner microchip in DAT recorders have been introduced into both houses of Congress, and the White House has weighed in strongly on the pro-chip side of the controversy. Hearings are scheduled today and tomorrow on Capitol Hill.
It is not the nature of the technology genie to remain willingly in the bottle. But the concerns of the music industry are valid.
Let's trust that from the congressional debate will emerge ways of protecting copyrighted material without squelching consumer freedom or manufacturers' ability to bring goods to market.