Imagine the following hypothetical scenario.
A frail woman in her 90s slowly makes her way down a crowded city street. Suddenly a fifteen-year-old boy comes up from behind her, grabs her purse, and runs.
Take a mental snapshot of the scene. Got it? Great. Let's continue.
The kid rounds a corner, purse tucked under his arm. He's spotted by three police officers. Noticing the purse, which likely does not belong to him, they pursue. Eventually they corner him, grab him, and determine that he is unarmed.
Then they beat him within an inch of his life.
When you took your mental snapshot, you probably didn't like this kid at all. He was just some punk with no regard for the law or his victim. But what if the first time you heard about this, the papers were reporting how he lingered in a coma for two days, and how he may never walk again?
Because the punishment he received was so excessive, you might feel a little sorry for him. He was just a kid! He made one mistake, and now he'll be paying for it for the rest of his life!
Do you see where I'm going with this?
I got some intelligent, beautifully articulated comments on last week's piracy poll. The contributors didn't agree with each other about everything, but on one point there was consensus: fining somebody $25 thousand for illegally downloading 30 songs is ludicrous.
The RIAA may yet win its case—it's won similar settlements in the past—but it has lost the battle for hearts and minds. Now the people inclined toward piracy have the perfect rationalization. They're not depriving artists of income, they're sticking it to the man! And the people who believe piracy is wrong still view RIAA targets as victims. The thinking shifts from "We shouldn't take music without paying the artist" to "Good grief, it's not that bad."
If the RIAA truly wants us to understand that piracy is harmful, they need to make the punishments fit the crimes. Otherwise nobody is going to take them seriously.