Congress should make computer programs copyrightable, a 14-person advisory panel said in a report presented to the White House yesterday.
But the National Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works suggested" changes in a law involving another key question - photocopying copyrighted works - and said problems raised by video-recorders were not in Congress' mind when the commission was formed in 1974.
The 200-page report argued basically that copyright protection provides the best balance between the programmer's legal exclusivity and the public's access to information. The other choices are patent protection and trade secrecy, but the commission said they confer near-monopoly status to proprietors.
"Under copyright, the ideas embodies in the program would be free. The expression of those ideas would be protected. A patent would protect the ideas as well," said the commission's executive director, Arthur Levine, a Washington attorney who also teaches copyright law at Georgetown University. He lives in Bethesda.
However, John Hersey, president of the Author's League and a commission member, challenges the view that a computer program is truly "written expression."
Hersey, author of such books as "Hiroshima" and "My Petition for More Space," which he wrote with the aid of a computer text-editing system, argues that computer programs do not merit copyright protection.
The commission was placed in a bind when examining the question of what constitutes "fair use" in photocopying because it was not permitted to consider the use of photocopiers in educational institutions, where much of the photocopy abuse takes place.
Furthermore, Congress wrote a new section into the copyright law allowing certain library photocopying problem.