Doing the Jailhouse Rock

But the Napster case may be only the opening sword fight. The recording industry is taking very seriously what it considers Internet plundering of its jewels. And new sentencing guidelines scheduled to take effect in May could actually land MP3 pirates in the brig. That is, while simple hobbyist downloads are tough to track, Netizens who violate copyright law by aggressively sharing software and digital tunes face arrest and even jail.

Napster is not the only target. Since that suit was filed in December, a fleet of similar applications has sailed onto the Net. Web-based applications such as Gnutella, Napigator, and Wrapster are making it just about impossible to protect music, software programs, photographs, videos, or almost any other copyrighted digital material. The sites promote the programs for legal MP3 trading and often post a policy statement to that effect. In reality, the sites do not police their users (and sometimes note that, as well).

The cops know they can't stop everybody, but they aim to get everyone's attention.

"There is no way we can arrest a million people," acknowledges Glenn Nick, assistant director of the U.S. Customs Agency's CyberSmuggling Center. The distribution programs have flooded out far too widely for law enforcement to stop all cases of illegal copying. Unlike Napster, many programs in this new breed operate peer-to-peer, so there's no central site for investigators to target.

The Cuffs Aren't Digital

But brace yourself for some serious arrests.

"People say you can't do anything about speeding," says Randy Thysse, supervisory special agent at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. "But [you can] park a cruiser on the side of the road to slow people down."

So watch for that virtual patrol car, and expect more than a ticket. Thysse advocates jail time for software and music buccaneers--and starting next month, judges may go along with him.

Convicted copyright offenders can receive jail time under new sentencing guidelines that take effect May 1. The policies cover intellectual property offenses on an emergency interim basis, and stem from the 1997 No Electronic Theft Act.

"It's getting increasingly easy to swap software and increasingly hard to catch pirates," says John Wolfe, manager of investigations for the Business Software Association. "These new sentencing guidelines give law enforcement some real ammunition."

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Tom Spring

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