In the latest example of how seriously the federal government is taking the issue of online piracy, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made it clear to a group of high school students on April 28 that they would be prosecuted if caught downloading illegal copies of music, movies, software, or other copyright-protected digital files.

“There really are consequences for your actions, even at this young age, that may follow you for the rest of your life,” Gonzales said during a forum at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I know you want to do the right thing.”

Gonzales said those consequences could include failing a background check, should any of the students be nominated by a future president for a high-level position.

The gathering of honor students from four schools was sponsored by Court TV as part of its “Choice and Consequences” series. It was held in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice (JD) and the Motion Picture Association of America.

The forum featured federal agents and prosecutors, as well as actor James Cromwell and a stuntman who said piracy damages their livelihood.

“Most of us are working-class actors,” Cromwell said, explaining that not everyone gets paid as handsomely as Tom Cruise and other box-office stars. “We have a vested interest in seeing that product is not ripped off.”

While the hand-picked crowd asked many questions that were scripted in advance and the forum did not include any opposing viewpoints, students were not shy about questioning the wisdom of prosecuting downloaders–or the priorities of the U.S. attorney general in delivering the message in person.

“The record industry takes far more money from artists than any fan would do,” said Eamon Cannon, an 18-year-old student at New Roads High School in Santa Monica, Calif. Cannon said he occasionally downloads songs, but not movies. He said he doesn’t think the heavy-handed message delivered April 28 will persuade most teens.

“Trying to make it seem like they’re doing it for us doesn’t make sense, because their attitude through it is, ‘You guys are these criminals,'” Cannon said. “No one is going to relate to that.”

In an interview afterward, Gonzales praised efforts to educate teens on the law and defended recent federal moves to strengthen criminal penalties.

“Many of these kids really do not know that it’s wrong. They don’t know it’s illegal. So part of this effort is to educate them,” Gonzales said. “Enforcement of criminal laws and seeing people going to jail does send a powerful message–and it does act as a deterrent.”

One panel featured Mike Nguyen, a 29-year-old Los Angeles resident who pleaded guilty several years ago for federal copyright infringement. He said education efforts should start with younger children.

The sessions did have an impact on some students.

“I didn’t know you could actually go to jail,” said Megan Runnels, a 16-year-old student at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “I didn’t realize it was that big of a deal.”

Gonzales’s speech was part of an ongoing JD initiative called “Activate Your Mind: Protect Your Ideas.” The initiative was launched in October as part of JD’s Task Force on Intellectual Property and its efforts to take preventive measures to deter intellectual property theft.

The first event, held in Washington, D.C., last fall, featured then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. Students, artists, and law-enforcement officials also took part.

See these related links:

U.S. Department of Justice
http://www.usdoj.gov

Motion Picture Association of America
http://www.mpaa.org