WASHINGTON - I hate to say I told you so.
Well, not really. Like most people, I rather enjoy it, to tell the truth.
Not that one had to be a genius to foresee what happened this week: The music industry filing suit against 261 people who had downloaded songs from the Internet without paying for them. The lawsuit seeks as much as $150,000 per stolen song.
Like I said: Big surprise. It didn't take a crystal ball to guess that an industry that estimates its piracy losses at more than $4 billion a year would eventually do something drastic.
I and others have made that point repeatedly in recent years. But the young people - they're almost always young - for whom "free music" has come to seem an entitlement were never impressed.
They dismissed the industry's threats with the sense of blithe invincibility that characterizes young people, often justifying their thievery with the most guileless naivete. Consider two exchanges posted on a Napster bulletin board after the industry sued that company into submission.
"Music," wrote one fan, "is not something which should be copyrighted and sold and still owned by the musician."
"Music should be free for all," said another.
As if nobody had to pay the truckers and engineers, roadies and publicists who make the industry go. As if fan worship was something you could cash.
Now comes the reckoning. Dozens of lawsuits filed and many more threatened.
And suddenly the news is full of people frantically wiping their hard drives of contraband songs and parents of minors having earnest conversations with the tykes about their Internet activities. There is fear, there is defiance and there is anger over the industry's tactics. One student complained to CNN, "They can't just hack into our systems and track our activities. It's our property."
The poor child was apparently irony-impaired.
And it's hard to feel any sympathy for her or any of them because, hey, we told them so.
But one doesn't exactly overflow with sympathy for the industry, either. After all, we told them so, too. This goes back nearly a decade, to when "Information Superhighway" was just becoming a cliche and the idea that you could "download" music from the Internet was in its infancy. It didn't take a lot to see that this process could someday supplant two of the industry's primary functions: manufacture and distribution.
Given that one can now build a studio in the garage for a couple thousand dollars, you can strike another of the recording industry's traditional functions: recording. Which leaves what? Promotion and publicity?
The point is that we have arrived at a time when the very idea of a "music business" as traditionally constituted seems increasingly quaint. The industry could have adapted itself to the new realities 10 years ago, could have pioneered Internet pay services that would have, to some degree at least, headed off the current rush of online shoplifting. But it chose not to. Hidebound and hubristic, it resisted change any idiot could have seen coming.
The music barons could have shaped the future, but ignored it instead.
Now they find themselves scrambling to catch up, scrambling to persuade young people to pay for something they have become accustomed to receiving for free. You think that won't be a hard sell?
I am to business savvy as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is to tact, but this all seems a prime example of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. I mean, something's gone truly haywire when an industry is reduced to suing its own customers.
In so doing, the music business may well win the proverbial battle, but lose the war. Given the wealth of entertainment options we have at our fingertips these days, is it so hard to imagine that a young person might choose the one that isn't suing him?
Nobody's going to win this fight. Something else you don't have to be a genius to know.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.