Here's how I picture it going down. The split-screen windows from Fox's hit 24 show kick in, along with the show's signature musical second ticks.

In one window, you have a 24-year old Chicago man uploading a few episodes of 24 to a video-streaming website. In another window, you have the Feds lining up a case of copyright infringement against the uploader. In the third window, you have record labels, shrugging their heads over the goodwill they squandered when they went after individual song swappers.

You can't blame Fox parent News Corp. (NYSE:NWS) for getting steamed. The episodes were put up on -- a video-sharing site similar to Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube or News Corp.'s own MySpace, only smaller -- before they aired on Fox television stations.

Few will be able to make a legal argument in favor of the renegade uploads. We're not dealing with the gray area of some young kid who may not know any better, uploading some older show. Folks who saw the episodes on the site would have little reason to see the commercial-padded version on Fox a few days later.

One for the money
This does open up a rusty can of worms. Going after fans when lines are crossed isn't always the most prudent approach. Just ask the music industry. The major record labels, through the Recording Industry Association of America, went after individuals who made songs available on file-sharing networks four years ago. Putting human names -- and faces -- to a crime being committed by tens of millions of peer-to-peer platform users in any given day, the industry faulted the PC pirates for crippling the prerecorded music industry.

Since then, music file-swapping has been successfully commercialized. Led by Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), consumers accept paying for legal digital distribution, even if illegal downloads continue on the fringe. The RIAA is now going after college campuses to curb the piracy. Still, what did the industry gain in all of this? It blamed digital sharing for killing CD sales, but disc sales continue to drop under a kinder climate.

P2P networks were major-label stingers, but not because listeners were ignoring major artists' releases. The networks simply opened up the musical alternatives. A decade ago, music consumption was mostly the handiwork of repetitive terrestrial radio stations and limited music-video cable stations. These days, Internet radio, satellite radio, and music discovery sites like Pandora and iLike are providing deeper niche-specific experiences.

Piracy may have been at the heart of the Napster-led P2P revolution, but the end result was a hungrier -- yet ultimately more discerning -- music fan.

Two for the show
The music industry misread the symptoms of fattening iPods. Instead of building on the Web-centric powers for creating street teams and establishing deeper artist rosters of smaller acts to cash in on the narrowcasting of musical tastes, the labels trimmed their rosters, consolidated, and banked on lunch with dinosaurs.

The television industry may be following suit. Yes, the extreme case behind the 24 incident isn't forgivable, but it may not be long before it goes after the more casual clips that wind up on the video-sharing sites.

Some networks are doing it the smart way. CBS (NYSE:CBS) runs one of the most popular channels on YouTube. NBC has signed up viral video stars Nobody's Watching and Barats and Bereta.

It's not always easy. Many of the leading video-sharing sites like YouTube rely on the content creators to request the removal of pirated clips. They also rely on the community to police the growing library of videos. The community is pretty good about quickly flagging inappropriate, pornographic, or racially charged content, but seems reluctant to turn in pirated videos. Is it because the piracy's so prevalent that it seems natural, or because viewers are unsure whether the clip is unauthorized? YouTube limits the length of the upload for most users, so complete episodes rarely make their way onto the site in one piece.

So is this a time for fisticuffs or for diplomacy? Fox is in a desirable position. Its parent company owns one of the most popular video-sharing sites, and the most popular social networking site through MySpace. Rather than go for the kill, Jack Bauer may be better served by firing off a warning shot, if only to buy time before formulating a strategy to make the most of positive promotional aspects of digital distribution.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a clip culture junkie, though he has the power to kick the addiction as needed. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.