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Illegal downloading: How do you explain it to the kids?

Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail

Tom, a Toronto father and IT professional, breaks the law about four times a day, which is why he'd rather his last name didn't appear in this story: That's the number of television shows he usually downloads each night - a free version of digital cable for his family.

A few years ago, his seven-year-old daughter saw the stern commercials that compared what her dad was doing to sneaking a DVD into your pocket at the music store.

When she came to him with questions, Tom didn't sugarcoat. Instead, he offered a reality check. "It's simple math," he told her, a matter of family finances, and human nature: People won't typically pay for something they can get for free.

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It is a truth held to be self-evident from time immemorial: People like free stuff. If you concede that piracy will always be with us, where does it fit into our future?

The ethics, he says, are muddier. "It's a tough question, I admit it."

And a complex issue to explain to kids who are tempted by the Web's free but questionable content offerings. ( Iron Man 2, for instance, showed up online two days before it hit North American theatres).

Why is it illegal to copy a DVD you've already paid for, even for your own personal use? How do you explain to your child that downloading movies and copying software is wrong when the tech industry sells the equipment that allows you to do it? And if you can PVR a television show on your cable, why can't you download that same show from the Internet?

What has changed since the days when their parents made mix tapes - other than the fact that the Internet makes it easier?

"This is an incredibly complex bucket of worms," says Marcel Gagné, a technology writer and father in Waterloo, Ont. "The person who thinks you can just sit down with your kids and go, 'Copyright violation bad, don't do it,' and leave it at that is extremely naive."

At the same time, it's a conversation that parents need to have with their kids as government and industry explore stricter, if not particularly effective, laws to catch and punish illegal downloaders. This week, the file-sharing service LimeWire was found liable for copyright infringement in the United States, a ruling declared "an extraordinary victory" by the music industry.

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Media reports suggest that the producers of The Hurt Locker, which won the Best Picture Oscar this year, is close to filing lawsuits against tens of thousands of people who downloaded pirated copies of the film. Recent laws passed in Britain and France would disconnect, for up to a year, the Internet service of people who continue to download illegally after being warned to stop.

In Canada, downloading movies, video games and licensed software is illegal. However, rules concerning music are complicated by an exception in the Copyright Act that makes it legal to copy a recording for personal use. The government charges a levy on blank recording media as a way to compensate artists. The private copying section of the act was created before file-sharing exploded, and it doesn't specifically outlaw downloading.

While the government is working on a new law expected to clarify the consequences for piracy, most chronic downloaders receive nothing more than a stern warning from their Internet provider to stop. (And usually, the industry reports, they heed the warning; illegal downloading in Canada reached an all-time low last year, according to a study by the Business Software Alliance.)

"Parents have to lead by example," says Peter Beruk, compliance marketing director for the alliance. "The law is clear: If you want to use a product you simply have to pay for that product."

For some parents, this means a clear-cut decision to pay for every movie, music track and television show that plays on their television, laptop or iPod.

Alison Paprica, a policy researcher for the Ontario government, says her children, aged 11 and 7, should understand that artists deserve to be paid for their creative work. She sees illegal downloading as akin to shoplifting - and she certainly wouldn't do that in front of her kids.

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"We always make the point with them that it's important to decide what you value and spend your money on that," she says. "And if you really value it you should pay for it."

The same approach was taken by Dawn, a Toronto mom, when her 13-year-old son came home last fall with songs a friend had helped him load onto his iPod. She suggested he could listen to them once, decide if he liked them, and either delete them or buy them himself. When she caught her daughter's boyfriend downloading movies on their computer, she quickly put a stop to it.

But even in their house, they fudge the rules: The family likes to watch Japanese television shows that aren't licensed in North America, so they download them from a site that translates them into English. Once the show becomes available in North America, they'll delete the content from their computer, she says.

But Dawn also admits that she can only share her views, not control her son's choices.

"I certainly don't follow him around whenever he's got his iPod on," she says. "Mostly, I encourage my children to think about what it is they're doing and develop their own morals that I hope will be similar to mine."

Mr. Gagné will eventually have this conversation with his children, the oldest of whom is 5 - and he'll make clear there's no simple answer. "Everyone has a grey zone on this," he says.

For instance, sometimes, to spare them the menus and commercials at the beginning of their DVDs, he downloads an online version or copies the DVD. That's illegal, he acknowledges, but if Hollywood makes it impossible to skip straight to the movie, he figures it's fair game. He also lets them watch shows posted to YouTube: "I'm not going to police YouTube."

And the fact that the tech industry sells devices that make file-sharing easier, and that blank CDs come with the levy, makes the situation even fuzzier to explain, he says. "The very industry that tells them it's bad is sending mixed messages."

Tom also makes this point: Why else would you sell home consumers a 2-terabyte hard drive that streams video to their television through a Playstation 3 unless you're assuming they'll be downloading content online?

He's shown his daughter articles in which even artists can't agree on how copyright should work. But at the same time, he makes clear that it's not a perfect system - and that businesses and government are trying to make it work more fairly. "This is something we are all going to have to work out."

And the issue just keeps expanding as digital books become more prevalent. While Tom admits that he feels more empathy for "an author than Arnold Schwarzenegger," if it means the difference between his daughter reading one book or 100 books that he can't afford to buy, expect his computer to get busy downloading.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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