The Motion Picture Association of America is daring Samsung Electronics to ship its new video cassette recorder to the United States.
"They're just asking for trouble," said James Bouras, the MPAA's vice president for home video. With nearly 40 million VCRs already in U.S. homes, why should the MPAA care about a new model from South Korea? Because the unit -- dubbed the "Translator" -- is effectively two VCRs in one, enabling people to copy cassettes with ease.
What the MPAA fears is that consumers will buy these machines to make illegal copies of movies instead of legally renting or buying them.
"The home copying of prerecorded cassettes would have a devastating impact" on the $5 billion-a-year home rental and sales industry, insisted Bouras. "The almost exclusive purpose [of such machines] is to duplicate prerecorded cassettes, and that's copyright infringement," Bouras said.
So, if Samsung ships its Translator, Bouras said, the "probabilities are very high" that the MPAA will sue.
To allay such concerns, Samsung talked to the MPAA about the machine early last week. The two sides, however, have different views about the outcome of those discussions.
In fact, said Bouras, "We have a written agreement from [Samsung] that they have no plans to market the machine in the U.S."
But now, Samsung's plans may have changed.
"When we talked to the MPAA last week," at the Consumer Electronics Show here, said Donald L. Kobes, Samsung's national advertising manager, "our only intention was to show it. Now, we've changed our intentions. Now that we've shown it, we've gotten very enthusiastic responses, and we're prepared to look at the guns that are pointing at it."
Kobes pointed out that the Translator, which is not yet in production, isn't designed just to copy tapes, but to transfer them from the new 8mm format now being marketed by Sony Corp. to the larger VHS format -- and potentially vice versa.
Thus, he said, it's not intended to be a "pirate" tape duplicator.
But this isn't the first time that the MPAA has played high-tech hardball with the VCR industry. The association pushed one case -- which sought to make home taping off the airwaves a copyright violation -- all the way to the Supreme Court, where it lost.
Two years ago, the MPAA forced Sharp Electronics, a Japanese company, to back down from its plans to market a Translator-like double-deck VCR in the United States.
"There were legal ramifications we were concerned about," said John C. Falcone, Sharp's marketing manager for consumer video.
Indeed, Bouras boasted that in the face of MPAA pressure, the Electronics Industries Association of Japan last year got a "voluntary restraint agreement" among its VCR manufacturers not to ship any such machines to any country where "the question of copyright would be a major hurdle."
However, Falcone said, with VCR prices so low, anyone interested in copying can simply buy two machines and hook them together for less than $650. Samsung officials say the Translator will sell for less than $1,000.
But the MPAA's Bouras said that preventing illegal duplication is a top priority and that signals are now being placed in cassettes to prevent copying, and that the association is negotiating with Japanese manufacturers to put antiduplication technology into new VCRs.
There will be an agreement this year or never, he said.
But Korea's Samsung would not be covered by such an agreement, and the firm has said it is prepared to fulfill the wishes of the marketplace with the Translator.