"Most parents who would walk into their child's room to discover that the child had walked out of Tower Records with 100 CDs without paying for them would be horrified," U.S. Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. John Malcolm said in a speech last year.
Many universities, while trying harder to educate students about copyright laws, have decided against taking stronger steps like blocking music-sharing Web sites or threatening to discipline students any more harshly than taking away their computer privileges.
The recording companies raised the stakes in their campaign to cease the free distribution of music online Monday by filing lawsuits against 261 people for allegedly violating copyright laws and threatening to go after thousands more.
For many people, particularly youngsters, swapping music online has become the modern equivalent of copying cassette tapes for friends, although the industry says it is much more pervasive and damaging than prior copyright violations.
The industry's charge to court puts parents in a compromising position and may pull them into the dispute.
Mike Abernathy, chairman of the intellectual-property department at Bell, Boyd & Lloyd in Chicago, said parents will likely be held liable for their kids' actions since they own the computers and are responsible for supervising the children.
He compared filings against parents to lawsuits against companies with misbehaving employees.
"Here the parent is the deep pocket," Abernathy said. "I would think if they want to send a message, they would not just go after the kids, but the family as well, and let that filter through the community."
Attorneys said parents should instruct their children not to download copyrighted music because of legal and ethical issues.
"From an ethical standpoint, you have to tell them that they are taking bread out of people's mouths," said Ben McLane, a Los Angeles-area music attorney.
David Meeske gave his son, Chris, a senior political science and Islamic history major at the University of Chicago, one piece of advice about downloading music: "Don't do it."
"I told him it's not something you should partake in," said Meeske, a technology consultant in New Jersey. "They can find out about you at any time and any place."
Paul Dilorenzo's two sons, 12 and 15, regularly downloaded music at the height of Napster's popularity, but their parents put a stop to the activity.
Dilorenzo said his children are still wrestling with what is wrong with doing something that has become common practice. "They're trying hard to understand, and I think they know," said Dilorenzo, who lives in Chicago.
Still, as news about the lawsuits dies down, many people expect that parental concern about downloading music will again pale in comparison to other nefarious activities teens can engage in.
"The message has gone out," said Abernathy, who has three kids, ages 20, 19 and 16. "Whether it will have a long-term impact, I doubt it. People are such that they will always go for the easier, most economical way for something they want."
Unlike most households, universities have been dealing with music swapping issues for several years. Some blocked access to Napster, but cutting off access to the sites is now not common.
"It would be difficult to just block certain illegal things without blocking what is legal and may be part of an academic program," said Robin Florzak, a spokeswoman at DePaul University.
Many schools are trying to better inform students about copyright laws, doing everything from talking about the issue at new student orientations to creating pop-up Internet ads about what cannot be done on university computers.
Alan Cubbage, a spokesman for Northwestern University, said that if the school suspects illegal downloading is taking place in a dorm, it will cut off the student's Internet connection.
"Some of the students, to be honest, are a little naive about it," Cubbage said. "When you explain the situation to them, they are pretty understanding about it."