Crackdown on Internet downloaders

Why would anyone want to sue a 71-year-old man named Durwood Pickle?

Well, because Durwood's grandchildren came to visit Grandpa at his home in rural Richardson, Texas, and used his computer to download music from the Internet.

Durwood hardly ever uses the computer. "How do I get out of this?" he was quoted as asking in an Associated Press article. "Dadgum it, got to get a lawyer on this."

So do 260 other individuals named in such lawsuits filed a week ago by the Recording Industry Association of America.

The action was taken to discourage thousands who share copyrighted music over the Internet and was aimed at those who distributed more than 1,000 files each.

File sharing robs the music industry of millions of dollars in revenue each year. Because of shareware -- some of the most downloaded programs on the Internet -- one person can buy a CD and put it on the Internet, and then countless other computer users can get the music for free. They burn it onto their own CDs.

The Recording Industry Association of America wants to discourage the practice by getting courts to levy hefty fines on offenders.

The offenders' reasoning is simple: Free is better than $18 (the average cost of a retail CD), and you get the same music with the same quality, which isn't watered down the way cassette-to-cassette recording used to be when music was on tape before CDs. It's this reasoning that has attracted 60 million Americans to the practice of sharing by way of the Internet, even though most everyone over 18 likely would acknowledge it's illegal to break copyright laws that way.

What they may not realize is how easy it is to find them -- or at least the computers they use -- and how serious the penalties may be. There are reports of file sharers continuing the copy music even after their Internet providers have alerted them that the RIAA had asked for their names and contact information. Those providers gave the association the names of their account holders -- who were, in many cases, the parents and grandparents of the actual music downloaders.

U.S. copyright laws allow for damages of $750 to $150,000 for each song offered illegally on a person's computer.

The RIAA reasons that stealing music from the Internet is no different from shoplifting a CD from a music store, and that act would undoubtedly be punished. However, there are concerns coming from federal lawmakers about making criminals out of otherwise law-abiding teens or their law-abiding parents or grandparents who happen to have a computer with Internet access.

The association is threatening more lawsuits. The existing ones will have to make their way through court.

Until it all settles down and there's an answer from the courts about the practice, the safer alternative is paying $12 for the CD content music companies are putting online. It's cheaper than a new CD in a record store, and it's definitely less than a $750 fine.