The Copyright Royalty Tribunal is in shambles.
Its chairman, Marianne Mele Hall, resigned under White House pressure last week after disclosures that she helped write a book attacked as racist and insulting to blacks. The five-member tribunal now has only two members -- and may not be able, legally, to conduct business -- at a time when some key cases are scheduled for review, including one brought by media magnate Ted Turner.
More than $70 million dollars in 1983 royalty fees is waiting to be disbursed. The tribunal -- with a fiscal 1985 budget of $700,000 -- has never had a staff economist or accountant and only recently hired a staff lawyer. It has come to be seen as a dumping ground for well-connected political appointees, who often lack experience in the field.
These mounting problems have led supporters and critics to question whether the nine-year-old panel can, or should, survive.
"The tribunal is in dire need of reform," said Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), a longtime critic. "I do not know whether the agency is broken beyond repair."
Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), at a news conference called because of the Hall episode, went a step further: "I don't know in this day and age whether we even need the tribunal."
The tribunal was created by the Copyright Act of 1976, which was designed to give the owners of copyrighted movies and television shows some protection against cable television operators, who could snatch distant signals from the airwaves for retransmission.
The tribunal was supposed to set the fees cable operators would pay to retransmit distant signals. It was also to devise a formula for redistributing that money among the owners of the copyrighted material.
But from the start, the tribunal had problems.
First, as Washington copyright lawyer Bill Patry said, "The CRT was told to set new rates, but there's nothing in the statute to tell them what the right rate should be . . . . They had to deal with some complex legal issues, with very little statutory guidance."
The commissioners also were hampered by their lack of expertise. Only the panel's first chairman, Thomas C. Brennan, former counsel to the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on patents, copyrights and trademarks, had any real experience in copyright law.
"The Carter administration did a number on us," said Bruce Lehman, a lawyer who was counsel to the House committee that wrote the copyright law. "It was viewed by the Carter administration as a resting place for people who had been well-connected in the campaign. We've been on a downhill slide since then."
The Hall episode underscored the CRT's reputation as a political resting place, or, as Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) once called it, "a useful place to put some otherwise embarrassing applications for jobs." Hall, 34, a lawyer who once had been fired from a job at National Savings & Trust Bank here for "insubordination," told a House panel that she had never practiced copyright law and that her only relevant experience was a summer internship in the Copyright Office.
Hall was, however, associated with a variety of conservative groups -- particulary High Frontier Inc., led by retired Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, whose study into space-based antinuclear technology became the basis for the Reagan administration's "Star Wars" missile defense plan.
The other two commissioners, Edward Ray and Mario Aguero, are from the entertainment industry. Ray was a California state co-chairman for Republican Black Voters for Reagan-Bush in the 1980 presidential campaign. He also was an adviser to the Black Republican Council during the 1984 campaign.
Aguero, a Cuban immigrant, founded a company in this country that dubs Spanish soundtracks onto American movies. He has served as public relations chairman for the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
Only last week the White House nominated another well-connected Republican to the commission -- Rose Marie Monk, a personal aide to Reagan's longtime political adviser Lyn Nofziger. Monk said she has no copyright experience.
Usually, members of federal regulatory boards can turn to their professional staff of accountants and lawyers. But since the start, the CRT commissioners have worked with only their secretaries and pocket calculators. The tribunal initially was given about $500,000 for staff, which it never used.
"You don't turn back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Treasury," Lehman said. "Then the CRT became a little bit of a political football, a little bit of a whipping boy."
Since then, the CRT's decisions have come under repeated attack in the courts. Cable television operators were particularly incensed by the last rate that the tribunal set, requiring them to pay 3.75 percent of their profits to copyright owners, a figure they felt was too high. The rate, however, has been upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals here.
Some had hoped that Hall might be able to rejuvenate the agency. In her short time as chairman, she had hired the tribunal's first general counsel.
Now, with all the new doubts about the tribunal, the question becomes: If it doesn't set the copyright rates and distribute the fees, who should?
"I am looking at the Copyright Royalty Tribunal in terms of reforms," Kastenmeier said in an interview. "I think that . . . there may be some interest in Congress in whether some other type of entity can handle the same responsibility." Most often mentioned, he said, are the federal courts or a new Commerce Department office.
The motion picture industry, which holds many of the copyrights in question, favors direct negotiations between copyright holders and cable television operators, said Fritz Attaway, vice president and counsel for the Motion Picture Association of America Inc.
But that raises the question of who would do the negotiating. A single broadcast, often can involve hundreds of copyright holders.