People who write and publish books can be forgiven if they scoff at the indignation now being expressed in the music industry over the rapid growth in home taping -- a euphemism for pirating -- of record albums. "This hits us right in the profit gut," the president of the Record Industry Association of America said last week. "There are as many albums being taped at home today as are being sold . . . So why should the music industry be the only industry whose products are appropriated without compensation? Why should music recordings be the free lunch for America?"
To which can only be said: Where have you been all these years, Stanley Gortikov? The biggest "free lunch" is being served not at the tape-recording store but at the library, where books are offered to readers without charge and without compensation -- after the initial purchase of the books -- to the people who write and publish them. This is the most blatant rip-off of creative effort in the country, and authors have been howling about it for years, pleading for an American version of the Public Lending Right now established in several European countries. But nobody in Congress pays much attention to authors, so precious little progress has been made toward setting up a system that would pay them and their publishers for public use of their work.
The music industry, by contrast, has a well-organized lobby and a dazzling array of recording stars to press its case. A lowly author may go unnoticed on Capitol Hill, but senators and secretaries alike go gaga over such luminaries as Beverly Sills and Quincy Jones, Louise Mandrell and John Denver; in our culture, benumbed as it is by mass-market entertainment, these are forces to be reckoned with. Small wonder, then, that there is significant support in Congress for legislation that would impose a "royalty" fee on the sale of tape-recording equipment.
It is legislation that seems, on the face of it, entirely justified. The rapid advances in recording technology have made it possible to tape phonograph records at home with better results than can be obtained through the purchase of commercially recorded tapes. Not merely does this encourage people to tape albums for their own pleasure, it also encourages the multiple copying of records for sale on the black market or for free distribution among friends. The music industry says this is costing it $1.5 billion a year in sales; it argues that since taping deprives the industry of profits and musicians of royalties, a surcharge should be placed on recorders and tape cassettes, the revenue from which would be distributed by the U.S. Copyright Tribunal.
In pressing its case the industry is sounding alarums and blaring klaxons. The aforementioned Gortikov, whose gift for hyperbole is most impressive, told a Senate copyright subcommittee last week that "the problem has reached crisis proportions" and further outdid himself by asking: "Are we to stand by passively and watch the greatest musical creative community in the world strangle to death from newer and newer generations of copyright killer machines?" News reports did not mention whether this iridescent oratory was met with the gasps it surely deserved: killer tape recorders!
The only problem is that the music industry's legislation, though not without merit, is a special-interest bill that would punish many in order to give legitimate relief to a view. That musicians and record manufacturers deserve full pay for their work, just as writers and publishers do, should not be a matter for debate; it is a given. But the issue is far from this simple. There is little reason to believe that most home recording is piracy; though reliable information is impossible to come by, it seems reasonable to assume that abuse of recording technology is only one element -- how large an element, who knows? -- in a large and complex picture.
One need only observe ordinary Americans at work and play to realize that tape recorders are used for a wide variety of useful and entirely innocent purposes. The tape recorder has become an essential tool for authors and journalists, businessmen and scholars; without the tape recorder, the study of oral history would still be in a primitive stage. Families use recorders to make taped messages for distant relatives, to record children speaking and singing, to tape radio programs. Certainly it is possible to make illegal use of tape machines, as a former occupant of the Oval Office memorably demonstrated, but illegality surely is the exception rather than the rule; the tape recorder is almost as pervasive in American society as the telephone, and almost as useful.
Beyond that, not all re-recording of records and tapes infringes on the legitimate rights of artists and manufacturers. A common practice is to purchase a record to play at home and to make a tape of it for use in the car. The musician and record company get full compensation from the purchase of the record; the purchaser gets the additional pleasure of hearing the music while driving, purely for his private enjoyment, not for sale or distribution to anyone else. The music industry may argue that if a buyer wants a record and a tape, then he should purchase both; but one to a customer surely is enough, and to expect people to shell out for more than that is wildly unrealistic.
But if the record industry has its way and legislation now before Congress is approved, guilty and innocent alike will pay the surcharge: 5 to 25 percent on recording equipment, a penny a minute on tape cassettes. We are not talking peanuts here; a 90-minute tape that now costs $1.98 would be $2.88 under this legislation -- a 45 percent increase -- while a 25 percent surcharge would raise a $300 cassette deck to $375. "This is an attempt to put a tax on all consumers and then earmark it as a subsidy for the recording industry," a lobbyist opposed to the bill says, and he is right.
The record industry is right, too, though: Something needs to be done. This particular bill should be defeated -- as presumably it will be when the honorables on the Hill start to hear from consumers -- but the overall problem of uncompensated use of creative effort remains, not merely in the music industry but in the book and movie industries as well. What is needed is not a scattershot, industry-by-industry approach to the question, but a sweeping reexamination of copyright laws and procedures in which the goal would be to accommodate the age of technology to the rights of artists and audience alike. To do this will require time for careful study and debate, not the hasty and irresponsible action that the music industry has in mind.