For college students, file-sharing is a bit like underage drinking: Most people have done it, but since it’s such a minor offense, an offender will seldom encounter repercussions any more serious than a slap on the wrist. Even then, it is much more likely that one’s university, not “real” law enforcement, will be issuing the reprimand.

But the danger with file-sharing copyrighted material is that a much less forgiving Big Brother — a group of greedy executives — is always lurking in the shadows of the packets transmitted across the Internet, waiting to catch you in the act and demand statutory damages. Over the past five weeks, 805 students from 35 universities across the country learned this lesson, as these unfortunates were threatened with lawsuits from the RIAA, lawsuits that in the past have forced those sued into settling out of court for thousands of dollars.

This business model makes little sense. Why does the Recording Industry Association of America spend so much time and money tracking down and intimidating poor college students? Why does the music industry keep insisting that buying CDs should still be the only legitimate way to compensate artists, when it could be figuring out how better to take advantage of the mp3 revolution? (Hint: Cumbersome, proprietary DRM — the file restrictions that limit distribution and use of legitimately purchased media — on iTunes isn’t going to do the trick.)

While most students assume they’ll never be punished for engaging in a little file-sharing once in a while, the sad reality is that the RIAA’s monitoring capability will keep advancing, and those shared files will remain as illegal and vulnerable to detection as they are now. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, if the RIAA notices an illegal file on your computer and notifies Yale, ITS, as the online service provider, is required to force you to delete the offending material, or to kick you off the all-important school network. ITS is the fence between the RIAA and file-sharers, the protective Yale Security between the New Haven Police and underage partygoers. They step in once in a while to remind us that the rules exist, but for the most part, they leave us alone, concerned mostly with our safety.

If the RIAA keeps up its ineffective and expensive vendettas against students, it is not only wasting an opportunity to be a leader in the digital-music age, but also giving people even more reason not to buy CDs — doing so would reward the blatant mistreatment of consumers. Selling music is fine, but controlling it after we purchase it is not.

The good news for the recording industry? It’s not too late for the group to rectify its anti-consumer image: Just get rid of DRM, stop artificially inflating music prices, and give us more freedom with the music we actually purchase. Then, maybe, paying for an album won’t feel like such a waste.