For the past couple of years, the recording industry has tried just about everything to stop the digital music piracy accomplished via peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa and the previous incarnation of Napster. The industry efforts have been a little like turning a garden hose on a forest fire. Sure, you get some neat sizzles, and it's mildly satisfying, but man, the flames just keep on coming.

Suing the makers of peer-to-peer software hasn't worked. Suing the file-swappers seems to have little deterrent value, and it forces the industry to play the heavy in the media tribunal. The public has a hard time feeling sorry for a bunch of millionaire lawyers and executives as they haul pimply teenagers and college students into court.

How about paid services with anti-sharing software safeguards like Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) and the new Napster? These have been somewhat successful from a sales standpoint, but they're far from cheat-proof. Certain Scandinavian super-hackers have been cutting through our flimsy American security code more quickly than you can say iTunes.

The latest attempt to stymie file-swappers comes from a consortium called the Content Reference Forum (CRF) founded by Universal Music Group and technology firms as diverse as Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), ARM (NASDAQ:ARMHY), VeriSign (NASDAQ:VRSN), and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NYSE:NTT).

The CRF is proposing a new standard media meta-file. This digital nibblet would contain information about the sound or video file, but not the media itself. Instead, the home users' media software would be directed by the meta-file to a server where the real, copy-protected media resides. Then it can be acquired or purchased, subject to the download privileges of the individual consumer.

The CRF envisions some kind of reward system for sharing these files, as a way to encourage users to share them among their online peers.

It also harbors pretensions to become the creators of an entirely new digital-media world -- as evidenced by the not-so-subtle snippet from Michelangelo's Sistine Creation of Adam at the top of its Web page. But version 1.0 looks DOA to me. The reward system seems like a thinly camouflaged effort to enlist hyperactive teens to do online marketing. I doubt it will work. Do they really think that a generation of file-swappers raised on free goods will suddenly be satisfied by high-tech teasers? (And can you imagine the opportunities for Spam?)

I don't pretend to know the final solution to this problem. But I'm certain of this: The game will be won by those who can provide the cheapest content with the least hassle to the end user. If that means illegal file sharing, the software and media industries will have squandered their big advantages in technology and capital.

Seth Jayson is far too Butters to participate in online file swiping. He won't even eat a grape while wandering the produce section. You can reach him at