WE CAN SEE it now: the shades are drawn, the lights are low and authorities surrounding the building spot the silhouettes of four figures huddled in a semicircle on the floor. . . . Kick open that door and bust every one of them because, just as we suspected all along, it's another gang of little tykes in their Dr. Dentons--watching a videotape of a Disney movie that old mums copped off prime time a week ago. That, as a federal appeals court warned this week, is breaking the law--and never mind who's watching or where.

"We find no congressional intent to create a blanket home-use exception to copyright protection and that home video recording does not constitute fair use," said the court. Well, blanket or no blanket, those home users now total nearly 3 million, and are growing. In their number, we suspect, are people whose past records are tarnished by instances in which they used sound-only tape recorders to swipe a few ditties off the radio, or maybe ripped off a federal inspection tag from a pillow.

Ultimately responsible, though--according to this opinion, at least--are the defendants in the case, including the Sony Corporation of America, which sells Betamax recorders. The appellate court has sent the case back to U.S. District Court, directing the judge to consider damages and an injunction against Sony, its ad agency and four retail stores. Another defendant in the suit is a Los Angeles resident who owns a video recorder. The District Court judge had ruled previously that recording material broadcast over the airwaves did not constitute copyright infringement as long as the recordings were not used commercially by owners of these machines.

Now, what's wrong with that reasoning? Isn't that why the sportscasters remind us every time that their presentations are "intended for private use only and any rebroadcast . . ." etc. for any of a number of money-making or other uses is strictly prohibited? The appeals court says the defendants are liable. So where does this suit take things?

Probably into a sixth and seventh year of litigation, and into some settlement that will protect the owners of copyrights, through some compensation/royalty arrangement that protects against the worst piracy--namely, systematic, indiscriminate, multiple videocopying and distribution. This is no new area for Congress to explore--for it is similar to past legislative proposals to address Xerox and other copying devices. The rights of artists, writers, film producers and, yes, commercial sponsors, must be protected, but so should the ability of people to enjoy practical and essentially private use of information in the comfort of their homes--on tape that doesn't turn red.