All right, so the RIAA is suing still more file-sharers. Sad, but there you go. In related news, the FBI has infiltrated the Direct Connect file-trading network and seized 200 petabytes (“I just have to pet a byte, it’s sooooo cute!”) of illegal material—apparently marking the first time the Justice Department has acted against a peer-to-peer network instead of leaving it to civil cases.

I’m not going to get into all the typical Slashdot hoopla about “an industry that sues its customers” or “file-trading should be okay because it actually makes the traded stuff sell better.” Those particular arguments have been done to death. Instead, I’m just going to point you at Lawrence Lessig‘s book, Free Culture. You can buy it, check it out of a library, or download it free (with Lessig’s and his publisher’s blessing) in umpteen zillion e-book formats. Unlike the typical Slashdot zealotry surrounding this issue, Lessig actually tries to present a balanced look at copyright, its origins, its intents, its uses, and its misuses, while still agitating for a freer position on intellectual property rights; when the content industry is in the right, he says so without hesitation—but also when it’s in the wrong. Go read it—I’ll wait.

This may not make me very popular among certain people, but I have to say it: Although I used to be fairly active in sharing on peer-to-peer networks myself, I have a hard time feeling much more than a vague, abstract sympathy for the people getting sued now. Why? Well, the RIAA has been suing file-traders by the hundreds for quite some time, now—and even back before they started to sue, the RIAA gave months worth of warning that they were intending to do it. They even said what criteria they were going to use: they weren’t going to sue downloaders, but rather, sharers—people with hard drives full of music and video files that they were making available for other people to download.

I removed all my directories from my Kazaa shares months before the RIAA even started suing. Any of the smart people would have done the same. Any even marginally-intelligent people would have done it after the first couple of thousand file-traders got sued. Anyone with a brain capacity surpassing that of a slime mold would have done it after the next several hundred people got sued. To still be sharing files by now

Yes, yes, I know, it gives you an ego-boost to think that you’re sharing all this marvelous Good Stuff with the rest of the community. I’ve been there, I used to do it myself. But you have to ask yourself, is the risk worth the reward? (Or, as Clint Eastwood might have put it, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”) There is a seriously non-trivial chance that if you’re sharing any large amounts of files at all, you’re going to get sued. The chance increases the more stuff you share.

Compare it to a lottery. For the reward of a chance at earning a small fortune (well, half a small fortune after Uncle Sam gets done with it anyway), you risk a dollar or two. And that’s fine. (Well, fine if you’re bad at probability math, anyway.) But with this file-sharing, for the reward of warm fuzzies you’re risking…your life’s savings. And the chance you’re going to get sued is a lot higher than the chance you picked the winning numbers.

Yes, yes, I know, the RIAA is Evil and they just want to shut down the file-trading networks and We Can’t Let Them Win and all that other Slashdot b—-s—-. Well, I’ve got news for you. Trading in copyrighted files without permission is against the law. We can argue whether or not it should be against the law until we’re all blue in our collective faces, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is. The RIAA is within its rights to shut down people who are sharing even one copyrighted-and-unpermitted file. We can argue whether they should be shutting file-sharers down until we’re all blue in our collective faces, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are within their rights to do so if they want to. If you want to keep trading files out of some misguided notion of “civil disobedience,” well, I guess that’s your right—but you’d better be just as prepared to be punished for it as were all those who’ve engaged in civil disobedience in the past. And since that’s what you wanted, I won’t feel sorry for you then either.

The time is long past to stop kidding ourselves that we can continue to get away with illegal activity. If you continue to share large quantities of illicit music or other files on P2P networks, best be prepared to pay the piper. Literally.