She nearly threw away the letter from the Colorado law firm, thinking it was junk mail. When she did open the letter, she was shocked to learn that she was being sued.

The lawsuit stated that she was liable for downloading copyrighted music from the internet. She knew that her daughter had downloaded songs from a free web site called, but both she and her daughter believed that the downloads were legal. Few teenagers and fewer parents understand the issue of illegal file-sharing.

This Clay Center family want to save others the expense and embarrassment they suffered and protect their privacy. They want to tell their story in hopes of helping someone else, but wish to remain anonymous.

The Limewire web site is one of many Peer-to-Peer or P2P file-sharing networks. These networks serve as a means for many computers using the same software to connect and share files. The software is usually free, but even the versions that require a fee to join contain some files that are copyright protected. The problem is that any user of this type of network can upload files to the network unregulated. These files could be copyrighted materials or worse.

The Federal Trade Commission, which is the nation's consumer protection agency, warns of several risks involved in using P2P networks. When connected to file-sharing programs, you could unknowingly allow others to copy private files you had no intention of sharing.

You might download copyright protected materials, a computer virus, spy ware that tracks your private computer usage, or even pornography labeled as something innocent-sounding.

There are good and legitimate uses for these networks in addition to sharing music or movies. Users can upload information they want to share with someone on the network, such as original musical compositions, photos, home videos, or even a power point presentation that would be too large to e-mail. Another user can then download that information.

Some recording artists will place a low quality recording on P2P sites to introduce new material and create interest. Later, users can purchase a higher quality recording if they like the music.

The record companies bringing the suit stated that her daughter had downloaded 179 songs in the course of a year. Not a lot. Many teenagers download thousands of songs in a year's time. The suit asked for $750.00 per song.

After several phone calls, the mother was referred to a settlement company in Kansas City. The woman she spoke with said that it did not matter that she or her daughter believed the downloads were legal. When asked why they weren't only prosecuting people who were downloading high volumes, she was told that they are choosing users large and small at random, in an attempt to stop everyone. She consulted an attorney, who told her that her family should pay the $4,000.00 settlement offered. He told her that the chances were fairly high of paying a great deal more if the case went to court.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) calls file sharing piracy and compares it to shoplifting. They are trying to educate the public about how the loss of sales affects everyone in the music industry from songwriters and sound engineers to record store clerks.

They (the RIAA) do not make any concessions for people like her daughter who did not know she was doing anything wrong. They seem to make no differentiation between a conscious decision to shoplift and inadvertently copying files protected by a copyright which were placed on a P2P site by another individual member of the network.

Because the networks are decentralized, they do not maintain control over the content that is shared and seem to be free from liability for illegal sharing of copyrighted materials.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was founded in 1990 as a nonprofit organization which helps to defend free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights in the electronic world. The organization includes lawyers, policy analysts, activists and technologists who offer their expertise to policy makers, the press and the public.

The EFF notes that broadcast radio faced some of the same problems with the music industry in its early days. The musicians believed radio was pirating their work at that time and attempted to sue broadcast radio out of existence. Eventually, they got together to form the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), followed by Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). Radio stations pay a licensing fee and are allowed to play any and all music they choose on the equipment they choose. Each of these organizations collect the license fees and then distribute them back to the artists they represent.

The EFF believes that a similar system would be the answer to the internet file sharing problem.

Limewire's web site does offer copyright information, if users are careful to read it. It's a pretty good bet that few teenagers read all of the various instructions and information on a web site, but in the case of joining a file-sharing network, it would be a wise move. The RIAA folks are quick to remind that ignorance of the law is no defense.

The Clay Center family learned a painful lesson about copyright law. Mom's mission now is to inform other teens and parents about music downloads. "Though there probably are sites where we could legally download some songs for free, we don't even go there. Now, if my daughter wants a song, we go to Walmart and pay 88 cents for it."

If your family likes the convenience of downloading music from the internet, is a web site run by the recording industry. Along with information about copyrighted material, it has a list of sites where users can legally download music.

The bottom line is that parents need to talk to their children about what they are downloading and the source they are using. The Music United site warns parents "....when you're on the Internet, digital information can seem to be as free as air. But the fact is that U. S. copyright law prohibits the unauthorized duplication, performance or distribution of a creative work. That means you need the permission of the copyright holder before you copy and/or distribute a copyrighted music recording."