The conventional wisdom has been that the record companies would target services like Napster with threats and lawsuits, but they would never attack individuals – for practical and PR reasons.

Forget it. The copyright police are watching.

The new services popping up to replace Napster – Gnutella and the like – do not use central servers. There’s no company to sue, just a lot of individuals sharing files. The record companies, movie studios, and independent bounty hunters are crawling all over those services, taking down IP addresses. Demands are made to the ISPs to reveal subscribers’ names, cut off accounts, and potentially open people up to being sued for sharing files. There have been a few high-profile cases already, and you can count on more to come.

A story in last month’s Wired Magazine quoted industry executives endorsing the idea of a few high-profile lawsuits against people sharing files online. “Let’s throw a few college kids in jail, that will help.”

The copyright police scare me. This will affect all of us – you’ll be hurt even if you’re not sharing files online. (Pick up the June 26 issue of PC Magazine and read the article on “Digital Rights Management” for a glimpse of CDs that stop playing, movies you can’t loan to friends, songs you can’t listen to in the car, and a lot of other things.) This has the potential to reshape our world more than anything else I can think of right now – and you’re not going to like any of it. There was no consideration of consumers when the copyright laws were written, and technology has given copyright holders extraordinary weapons to extort money from us. This is war, folks, and we’re losing it because we don’t know it’s being fought.

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