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When does it become piracy?
It's not always easy to distinguish between piracy and legitimate media usage. - photo by

One of the most implausible things about the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie was that Peter Quill has a mixtape from the '80s that has survived traveling in outer space for two and a half decades.

Back in the day, when records were made of vinyl and audio cassettes were actually a thing, I would record my first play of an album in order to get the best possible sound quality for the cassette copy I would use to play in my car. The tapes usually wore out after awhile if the car stereo didn't eat them first.

In those technologically quaint days, record companies wanted to ban the recording of mixtapes and such on the grounds that doing so constitutes piracy of intellectual property. If you had the LP of "Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits" and wanted a cassette version, too, the honorable thing to do was to go repurchase the same music in a different medium.

But people continued to make their own tapes with impunity, and, other than the ire of a few zealous record company types, nobody considered this a big deal. Certainly those who transferred music from vinyl to cassette didn't view themselves as criminals for doing so.

What a difference the Internet makes.

Today, media is not tied to physical, tangible objects like a vinyl record, and sharing and duplicating is almost laughably easy. This is true not only of music but also of movies and TV shows, too. Just recently, a high-quality digital copy of the latest "The Expendables" sequel found its way to the Web and millions of file-sharers now have the movie on their hard drives without paying a dime for it.

This, we are told, is a terrible thing.

And the fact is that it is a terrible thing. Piracy is theft, and while it's hard to feel sorry for Hollywood millionaires like Sylvester Stallone when their movies get ripped off, the reality is that there are a whole lot more people other than megastars whose livelihood is threatened when the fruits of their labors can be stolen by anyone with an Internet connection.

But where do you draw the line?

No one would argue, for instance, that a public library constitutes a criminal enterprise. Yet authors receive no compensation for every book that's checked out. And libraries aren't just stacks of books anymore — digital materials are readily available there, too. So if I check out a Simon and Garfunkel CD, listen to it a few times and then import all the songs into my iTunes library, have I committed a crime? If I still have my hoary old vinyl copy upstairs in the attic, how is that any different from making a cassette version to play in my car?

Or consider the column you're reading right now. If you're reading it on a piece of newsprint, you likely paid for the privilege. But given the realities of how the written word is consumed these days, chances are you're currently looking at a computer screen, not a piece of paper, and it hasn't cost you anything at all. If you cut-and-paste this and email it to your mother so she, too, can bask in Jim Bennett's brilliance, can you be arrested for grand larceny? And would that make Mom an accomplice?

Of course, copyright lawyers make a living funding legal answers to such questions, but it's the morality of this issue that interests me. At some point, each of us has to draw the line somewhere, and most people are wise enough to make appropriate decisions as long as they recognize the underlying principles involved.

Feel free to cut-and-paste that final conclusion and share it with Mom.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,