Battle Over Digital Audiotape : Lawsuit: Songwriter Sammy Cahn and four others file a class-action suit seeking to block U.S. sales of the machines. They claim Sony is infringing on copyrights.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Backed by the National Music Publishers' Assn., a California songwriter on Monday filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to block Sony Corp. from selling its digital audiotape recorders in the United States.

In a 24-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, songwriter Sammy Cahn and four other plaintiffs accuse Sony of "actively promoting the ability of DAT recorders to make perfect digital copies of compact discs" and thereby infringing the plaintiffs' copyrights.

Cahn, whose compositions include the song "Come Fly With Me," filed the suit on behalf of an estimated 40,000 American songwriters and music publishers. His suit comes amid four years of political controversy over whether DAT recorders would promote unauthorized home taping and cut into the industry's $6.5 billion in annual record sales due to DAT's ability to make near-perfect copies of compact discs.

"We would rather negotiate an equitable solution to the home taping crisis than litigate," said Edward P. Murphy, president of the National Music Publishers Assn., a New York-based trade group that represents about 700 of the nation's largest music publishers and is supporting Cahn's suit.

But, Murphy added, "the commencement of importation and the sale of consumer DAT machines in the United States necessitated, on the advice of counsel, the filing of a lawsuit at this juncture."

Last month, Sony became the first and only electronics company to sell consumer model digital audiotape recorders in the United States. Beginning the week of June 17, Sony began shipping two DAT recorders--a $900 and a $950 model

Digital audiotape recorders offer the high-quality sound of compact discs by relying on circuits that electronically convert a sound wave into a string of numbers. Those numbers form a digital snapshot of the music that all but eliminates the distortion found in conventional tape recordings, such as hiss, wow or flutter.

In addition, DAT tapes are only about half the size of audio cassettes, although 60-minute and 90-minute blank DAT tapes sell for $12 and $15, respectively, about three to four times higher than cassette tapes of comparable length.

Bob Weissburg, vice president of marketing for the high fidelity division of Sony Corp. of America, declined comment on the suit. But a spokeswoman for a Washington group that represents DAT equipment makers said the suit was unfounded.

"We have put together a legal defense fund in the six digits that will be used to fight any lawsuit," said Cynthia Upson, spokeswoman for the Electronics Industries Assn. "It's not illegal to sell (DAT), and other than for health or safety reasons, there's never been a law that barred any electronic equipment from entering this country."

For years, digital audiotape recorders have been opposed by record companies, songwriters and music publishers who feared DAT would encourage pirating and cut into compact disc sales. The Recording Industry Assn. of America estimates that unauthorized taping already accounts for $1 billion in lost revenue annually.

The recording industry thought it had resolved the DAT home taping issue last summer, when an agreement was reached to include a special copy-protection circuit in each DAT machine. The circuit, known as the Serial Copy Management System, allows consumers to make direct digital copies of compact discs in unlimited quantities, but it prevents them from making copies of those tapes.

But last month, songwriters and music publishers delayed the passage of legislation that would have made the industry accord law by arguing that the measure under consideration was not broad enough to cover other digital technology on the horizon, such as the Digital Compact Cassette recorder being developed by Philips N.V.

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