SCENE: A nursing home in rural America.

Personae: A couple of dozen octogenarians, most in wheelchairs, eagerly awaiting the start of a social evening in the common room.

Action: As the VCR is turned on and images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers bring smiles to the audience, the door bursts open. "Stop the machine," a stranger shouts. "You're violating the copyright laws of the United States, and you must desist or cough up $16,000 a year."

Believe it or not, something like this has been happening. If you're the kind of person who fast-forwards through the sinister FBI warning at the beginning of every movie you rent at the video store, or even if you simply haven't read that warning as a copyright lawyer would, you probably didn't know that you're not authorized to show the movie outside a private home even if you don't charge admission. You are violating federal law if you rent a cassette for a Boy Scout meeting or to cheer up a sick friend in the hospital or to bring back to the dorm after a hard day of classes. Prison wardens have gotten into trouble for renting tapes to show to inmates. And nursing home operators have come under fire for bringing Bogart, Bacall and Batman to shut-in seniors.

Suitably shocked by constituent complaints, Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) and Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced similar bills to create a special exemption from the copyright law for nursing homes. Then Rep. Bob Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), who chairs the House subcommittee that handles copyright legislation, came up with another idea. He offered the movie industry what he calls "an out-of-Congress" solution. Drawing on the Roth and Cardin bills, he put together an agreement that was signed the other day by nine motion picture companies, three licensing organizations and two nursing home associations. The principle of the copyright law will be preserved. Each of the associations, acting on behalf of all nursing homes, will make a token $10 payment to each movie company, and that payment will be donated to charity. In return, the companies have agreed to allow nursing homes to screen an unlimited number of rental movies until Jan. 1, 2001.

Like so many of the movies likely to be shown, this congressional caper had a happy ending.