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'Pirates of the Internet' is new class lesson

The film and music industry are working to educate younger computers users about the potential consequences of downloading music, video games or movies.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true"><p>The Washington Post</p></a

Iris Beckwith uses a 5-foot-tall robot to help teach elementary school students why it is illegal to download movies and music from the Internet.

Children generally don't see why downloading is a problem, she said.

"These kids are in la la land," Beckwith said after the presentation to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at St. Bernadette's School in Springfield, in which "Safety Bot" gave advice on how to be safe online and Internet etiquette. "They've grown up thinking that because they can download whatever they want on the Internet, that they should and no one will be the wiser," said Beckwith, a consultant.

What is just as troubling, said Rich Taylor, a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, is that kids at a computer still think they are impossible to catch.

So the industry's effort to educate children too young to appreciate the potential consequences of downloading music, video games or a Hollywood blockbuster comes with this message:

"You may think you're anonymous, but you're not. You may think it's legal, but it's not. And you may think you're not hurting anyone, but you are."

The industry's approach is two-pronged: to terrify and to teach.

"It's a very thick topic, one that's difficult for kids to understand," Taylor said. "What we're trying to do is get it back to 'Stealing is wrong.' "

Scaring file-sharers
Last month, the Motion Picture Association announced that it would begin suing those who download, one by one, to scare file-sharers away from the practice many believe has taken a chunk out of industry revenue in recent years. With this, the movie industry followed the lead of the Recording Industry Association of America, which started its first lawsuits in fall 2003.

Hollywood estimates that it loses $3.5 billion a year to piracy, and, although statistics for unregulated, rampant, online file-sharing are difficult to gather, a 2003 analysis by the media consulting firm Viant Group found that roughly 500,000 movies are downloaded illegally every day.

This fall, U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft met with 100 area high school students to give oomph to the no-stealing lecture. Ashcroft spoke alongside songwriters and convicted intellectual property thieves.

The Motion Picture Association also has been airing short ads before the previews in movie theaters. They feature behind-the-scenes workers on movie sets reminding viewers that online piracy is not a victimless crime. The industry has also taken out ads in major newspapers showing an adult's hand over a child's, encouraging parents to talk to their children about piracy.

At the same time, both industries have been working with schools and private educators to figure out how to communicate online ethics in a way young people can understand.

The recording industry reached out to colleges, where super-fast Internet connections allow large media files to be transferred quickly and where music downloading services such as Napster first found widespread popularity several years ago.

The movie industry has looked even younger, to homes with speedy Internet connections and primary school-age children who know how to take advantage of them. According to industry estimates, the number of homes with high-speed Internet access has increased 60 percent -- to 1 in 4 households -- in the past year and a half. To many youngsters, that means one thing: movies, music, video games -- in minutes, or less.

The Motion Picture Association paid $100,000 in 2003 to sponsor an anti-piracy curriculum developed with the independent nonprofit education company Junior Achievement. The program, "What's the Diff?: A Guide to Digital Citizenship," was intended to reach 900,000 students in grades 5 through 9 over two years. As part of the course, Junior Achievement offered students DVDs, DVD players, theater tickets and all-expense-paid trips to Hollywood for their winning essays about the illegalities of file-sharing.

But, controversial for those rewards and for its narrow take on a complex legal issue, the course drew ire from the National Education Association. Junior Achievement later quietly dropped the program.

Educating young computer users
Across the country, other programs seeking to educate youngsters about file-sharing among peers have cropped up.

I-SAFE, a California-based education company, designed a program that is being used in all states and the District. Over several weeks, students mimic the process of making a movie or a song. They write the lyrics. They record the tracks. They plan out marketing, distribution and sales. At the end, one student steals their product with the click of a mouse.

"To these kids, the Internet is a free playground," said Teri Schroeder, president of i-SAFE. "They don't understand the effort that goes into the production in this industry. All they see is the final product, the success, the money, the glory. We're trying for a generational change here."

Helping them do that is Street Law, a high school legal textbook company based in Silver Spring. Together, the two companies are working to develop a training program with the U.S. attorney's office. The program would pair teachers with lawyers to teach the real-life implications of taking copyrighted materials online.

The effort is small now, but the goal is to reach the vast population of young people who download because they can, with little thought to it, said Deborah Foster, Street Law's senior program director. It is going to be a long and complicated effort, she said.

"Kids are very savvy, especially around intellectual property," she said. "They may not be able to define 'intellectual property' and explain what that means. But deep down, they do know downloading music and movies is wrong. For some reason, they just choose to do it anyway."