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Digital Audio Tape Finally Reaching Consumers; Will Cassette Go Way of LP?

April 2, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Digital audio tape recording - the home taping enthusiast’s dream and the music industry’s worst nightmare - finally is here.

With a protracted legal battle over this latest advance in high-end recording potentially resolved, manufacturers are promising to roll out their consumer DAT machines by summer, nearly three years later than first expected.

The recording industry, aware of statistics showing that four out of 10 people over the age of 10 have taped recorded music in the past year, is holding its breath. In DAT, the big guns in the hardware industry are unleashing a product that threatens to do to the humble audiocassette what tapes and fancy compact discs did to the once-mighty vinyl LP.

″It has the potential of doing what CD did in its initial introduction into the marketplace″ - or about 35,000 units in the first year, said Paul Foschino, assistant general manager of Technics, the Secaucus, N.J.-based arm of Japan’s Matushita Electric Corp.

Matushita plans to introduce a DAT recorder in the United States under the Technics label this summer at a cost of about $1,200 to $1,300, Foschino said. The machines will carry a Panasonic label in Europe and Japan.

Philips Consumer Electronics plans to introduce a DAT machine this year, and it also is developing a cassette that could be played on both digital equipment and the analog cassette machines already in use, according to the trade publication Audio Week.

How well the pricey DAT machines fare with consumers is an open question, but some analysts predict that, like CD players, the prices will come down sharply when the new format gains popularity.

A disturbing blip on the horizon for DAT manufacturers, however, is the prospect of recordable-erasable CDs, which Tandy Corp., for one, is developing.

The imminent arrival of these digital technologies has revived the debate over home taping and whether artists should be reimbursed for potential lost sales. The money most likely would come from royalty fees on blank tapes or recorders.

A recent study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment said home taping may be causing as much as a 22 percent loss in prerecorded music sales. OTA said its survey in fall 1988 showed 41 percent of people over age 10 had taped recorded music in the previous year.

Songwriters, composers and music publishers claim that with DAT they’ll lose even more royalties as listeners make virtually perfect tape copies of their favorite compact discs.

But a bill pending in Congress to limit the number of copies that DAT machines can make has eased concerns of record manufacturers and cleared the way for introduction of the machines. The bill codifies an agreement reached last summer in Athens between the recording and manufacturing industries.

Although the bill by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., does not address the royalties question, the record industry considers the measure to be a major step forward.

David Leibowitz, senior vice president-general counsel of the Recording Industry Association of America, says the group remains ″very committed to royalties.″

″However, we don’t believe that royalties are politically achievable at the present time, which is why we felt that we should at least secure some protection,″ he said.

But the artists who create the songs aren’t satisfied. They question whether or not the new anti-copying technology is tamper-proof and say that even limited copying cuts into their business and will lead, ultimately, to fewer recordings being made.

″We want the technology to move forward, but the question is will it allow us to make a living and will consumers have product available,″ said Ed Murphy, president of the National Music Publishers Association.

Opponents of fees on blank DAT tapes or recorders claim such a royalty system would be unfair to those who don’t use the tapes to record music.

″If you want to tape your child’s first words, why should you pay Michael Jackson for that?″ said Ed Baxter, chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary patents, copyrights and trademarks subcommittee.

It is still uncertain how the DAT bill will fare this year in the House in a session shortened by election-year politicking and a major clean air bill that is tying up the Energy and Commerce Committee, where the bill resides.

″I don’t think it’s a terribly controversial issue, but it’s just a question of whether there’s enough time,″ said one congressional aide who would not allow his name to be used.

To the recording industry, the scary part about DAT, which uses the 1s and 0s of computer language to make exact duplicates of the source material, is that as many as 20 generations of digital copies can be made without discernible loss of quality.

Faced with the threat of runaway home copying, which copyright law generally has declared to be legal ″personal use,″ the RIAA in 1987 threatened to sue any manufacturer that introduced a consumer DAT model before copyright issues could be addressed.

The Athens agreement settled the legal question - for now - by instituting the Serial Copy Management System. SCMS will allow one DAT copy to be made from a copyrighted CD, but the user cannot make a copy from the DAT copy. It would allow a CD to be copied indefinitely onto different blank DAT tapes.

The system also limits to two the number of generations of copies that can be made from a non-digital source, such as today’s ″analog″ audiocassettes, LPs or radio broadcasts. One copy of a copy could be made from analog sources.

SCMS uses a silicon chip that will be able to detect an electronic anti- piracy ″flag″ that is placed on a copyrighted digital material such as music CDs. The chip will ″write″ this flag onto the first DAT copy made from the CD. If a DAT recorder detects this flag, its record function will not operate.

Professional DAT machines, without SCMS, already are in use in the United States in the recording, broadcast and computer industries - at hefty prices ranging from $2,500 to $7,000. ″Gray market″ consumer models can be had for $1,600 to $3,000. Automobile DAT players have been available for more than a year at $1,500 and up, with some prerecorded DAT tapes - mostly classical and jazz - available at about $25.

DAT tapes, which are about half the size of conventional audiocassettes, can store as much as two encyclopedia’s worth of data, much more than conventional cartridges used for backup computer storage. DAT tapes could be useful as backups to hard discs on personal computers.

DAT machines work something like a typical videocassette recorder. A mechanism inside the DAT machine opens a door on the back of the DAT cassette and draws the 1/3-inch-wide tape around a spinning record-play drum. The recording is accomplished at the dizzying speed of 123 inches per second - 65 times faster than today’s audiocassette deck.

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