Byline: TOM UTLEY
MY WILD guess is that roughly half of Britain's teenagers and young adults walk around every day with stolen property worth more than [pounds sterling]100 on their persons.
Though it shames me to say it -- and not for the first time, I may be doing them a terrible injustice -- I strongly suspect that my sons may be among them. I just don't know. And in my morally cowardly way, I don't really want to.
What I do know is that all four of my boys own iPods, stocked with a truly astonishing number of songs. Name almost any obscure track by a moderately famous singer or band, and within five seconds one or other of them will have it blaring out through the iPod dock in the kitchen.
It's the same with most of their friends, some of whom have literally thousands of recordings on these miraculous machines -- enough between them to stock an entire floor of HMV's flagship Oxford Street shop in the days of vinyl.
If they'd downloaded them legally, at 79p a track or [pounds sterling]7.99 an album, they would have had to pay well into four figures. But did they? I very much doubt it.
The sad truth is that among many or even most of my sons' circle, it's thought downright eccentric to pay for a download -- as geeky and nerdy as bringing an apple to school for teacher, or wearing jeans that actually fit.
It's not as if they belong to what is traditionally thought of as the criminal underclass. True, they're not above boasting about the quality of the forged ID cards they use to get served in pubs; and I believe that some of them (though I earnestly hope none of my boys) sometimes dodge fares on trains and bendy buses when there are no ticket inspectors about.
But by today's standards -- admittedly, not very high -- they're a good-natured, thoughtful and law-abiding bunch, with a fairly well-developed sense of right and wrong. I haven't the slightest qualms about leaving money lying around when they're in the house -- and I'd be very surprised, indeed, if any of them would dream of walking into a record shop, stuffing his pockets with CDs and slinking out without paying.
Yet on the matter of internet piracy, most of them seem to suffer a total moral blind-spot. Indeed, if I hadn't spelt out my views on the matter, time and again, I'm afraid it wouldn't so much as occur to them that there might be something wrong about downloading a recording from a free, file-sharing website.
It's not just because I'm a bit of a prig that I feel strongly about it. As a journalist, with nothing but words to sell, I have a strong vested interest in the principle of protecting intellectual property. My employers, who own the copyright to my columns in return for my salary, have every reason to be annoyed when the work in which they've invested pops up on other people's websites without permission or payment.
I'm not sure that even now, after droning on about it ad nauseum to my sons and their friends, I've managed to get the point across to them that illegal downloading is theft, pure and simple.
But at least when we talk about it now, my boys take the trouble to assure me that, these days, they download only from the most lawabiding sites -- though they usually go on to undermine their case by spouting a whole lot of highly unconvincing, saloon-bar lawyer guff about what makes a download legal.
Still, the point is beginning to get through to them that internet piracy is a moral issue -- and that's a start.
Unless I'm very much mistaken, however, that message has yet to sink into the minds of the huge majority of their generation.
I take with a pinch of salt the music industry's estimate that illegal downloading costs it [pounds sterling]180 million a year. After all, most teenage pirates would download only a tiny fraction of the number of tracks they keep on their iPods if they had to pay for them. …