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Online Piracy: The Ultimate Generation Gap

Like parents wrangling with a rebellious kid, the entertainment industry is cracking down on Internet pirates with punishments and tough love.

Record labels are threatening to sue individual file swappers and even throw them in jail, while film studios are running educational ads teaching that piracy is morally wrong and hurtful.

The Internet's free-for-all nature has created a generation gap between youngsters accustomed to getting songs and flicks for free and the entertainment execs whose business is in jeopardy.

And some teen pirates say adults just don't understand.

"Maybe they don't understand that teenagers work minimum-wage jobs, so why should we buy a CD with two songs we like on it when we can burn it for free?" said 15-year-old Melissa of Boca Raton, Fla., who downloads songs, music videos and movies a few times a month.

To curb that kind of attitude, two entertainment factions — music and movies — have taken very different tacks.

The Recording Industry Association of America's "bad cop" style relies on fear, hoping the possibility of jail time and fines will scare downloaders into submission.

The Motion Picture Association of America, on the other hand, has appealed to people's sense of morality by creating ads featuring behind-the-scenes employees like set painters who tell audiences how piracy drains their livelihood.

"It is trying to communicate that, a) It's wrong, and b) You're hurting people, everyday people just like you who are trying to pay their bills and raise their families," said Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp., whose Twentieth Century Fox (search) studio produced the ads.

But their harsh tactics come across as impractical to many people raised in the information age.

"The generation before us had to pay for music," said recent college grad Joshua, 24, of New York City. "Now you have no reason to purchase the music or movie in physical form. Everything is digital."

The MPAA (search) hasn't been hit as hard as the music industry by file sharing because of the lengthy movie downloading process and the poor quality of copies. But it hopes its educational effort — outlined on www.respectcopyrights.org — will prevent the problem from getting out of control.

In that vein, the MPAA is specifically targeting teen film fans, with its copyright history curriculum for the classroom. Beginning this fall, Junior Achievement — an organization that runs leadership programs in high schools — will have its instructors teach anti-piracy and copyright lessons.

"Technology doesn't sit stagnant. We're not going to sit stagnant, either," said MPAA spokesman Rich Taylor.

Still, some teen and early-20s file sharers scoff at the threat of being punished or taught a lesson.

"Kids really don't care," said college freshman Ben, 18, of Upper Nyack, N.Y. "We all copy music and download movies because the chances of them cracking down on us specifically are slim."

A spokesman for a cyber liberties group predicted the music industry's legal initiative will backfire.

"The lawsuits are both futile and counterproductive," said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Not only will they not stop file sharing, but they'll alienate customers."

Meanwhile, von Lohmann said, the music industry hasn't adapted to the new generation's music listening habits: The file-swapping Web sites' wide selection, flexibility and free tunes make downloading a virtually irresistible alternative.

"You can call it stealing all you like, but when 60 million people are doing it, we need to change the law," said von Lohmann of record labels. Under current copyright law, piracy is illegal.

Von Lohmann's organization, which is trying to persuade Congress to pass new legislation, believes the solution is charging a fee in exchange for a compulsory license to download and copy any files.

Still, the affected industries remain confident that they'll sway swappers.

"We're hopeful we haven't lost this generation," said Bob Kruger, enforcement vice president of the Business Software Alliance, which fights software piracy.

And despite the younger generation's seeming stubbornness on the subject, there's some evidence the piracy-is-evil message is sinking in. According to a recent Forrester Research survey, 68 percent of online youth said they'd stop downloading music illegally if faced with fines or jail time.

"It makes me feel kind of bad — like, 'oh no, I'm doing something illegal,'" said Melissa, the Florida teen. "I'm probably downloading a little less."