Has watching videotapes become a crime?

Apparently so.A group of children stricken with cancer in a Wichita, Kan., hospital recently had their right to watch videotapes in their hospital rooms taken away because it violated existing copyright laws.

Welcome to yet another skirmish in the video copyright wars. The current issue of Video Magazine details the chaos over the copyrighting issue and explores the legal battles now raging.

Thoughout its history, the videocassette recorder has spent a lot of time in the courtroom and has turned the copyright system on its ear. The original Sony Betamax narrowly escaped extermination in 1984 when the Supreme Court ruled by a scant five to four margin that timeshifting did not violate federal copyright law and that Betamax owners could legally tape television shows to watch at a later date.

Copyrighting is designed to prevent the unauthorized use of an artists creative work - a videotape of a film shown in a public place, like a hospital. But what exactly constitutes a public place has copyright owners running to the courtrooms once again.

Despite all these skirmishes over what constitutes home use vs. public performance, the real threat to copyright owners are the so-called "video pirates" who copy videocassettes illegally and sell them on the black market. Experts estimate a loss of $1 billion a year from tape piracy. Measures taken to make copy-proof tapes have failed.

Adding fuel to the fire is Go-Video, a small electronics firm in Arizona. Go-Video wants to produce a machine that would let viewers record two TV programs simultaneously for later viewing, watch a videotape while recording a TV program on a second tape, and transfer videotape material from one tape format to another - all legitimate uses. However, the hitch is that this machine will allow viewers to illegally duplicate pre-recorded tapes.