You might think John Ashcroft's Justice Department has enough on its plate, what with hunting terrorists and violent felons. But if the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) gets its way, our nation's G-men will soon be enlisted to help wring civil penalties from thousands of pasty-faced teenagers.

The Pirate Act is designed to protect intellectual property rights, but the way it will accomplish the task is a bit spooky, to say the least. Instead of requiring criminal charges from the government, or a civil suit from the copyright holder, this bill will authorize the attorney general's office to file civil suits and collect damages "against any person who engages in conduct constituting copyright infringement."

Sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the bill passed the Senate last week on unanimous consent and was sent to the House.

Predictably, the RIAA says the bill is necessary to help it combat rampant illegal music downloads. File swipers and legal pundits have said that this smells like a taxpayer subsidy for a well-funded group of special interests -- we the people pay for the rich guys' expensive civil enforcement actions.

Both sides have a point. The recording industry, not to mention download firms like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), RealNetworks (NASDAQ:RNWK), Roxio (NASDAQ:ROXI), Loudeye (NASDAQ:LOUD), CNET (NASDAQ:CNET), and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) depend on an orderly system of copyright laws to distribute, profit from, and create new material. But on the other hand, why should the public provide the muscle for private civil suits?

And where will it all end? The bill's vague wording opens the door for enforcement on just about any perceived infraction, so long as it looks like "conduct constituting copyright infringement." That could mean anything from emailing the wrong photo to Aunt Mildred or misusing Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) "Happy Birthday."

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Fool contributor Seth Jayson owns no position in any firm mentioned. View his Fool profile here.