Files. That’s what the mp3 format turned music into: digital files that are compressible, reproducible, sharable and, of course, stealable. The technology is no longer new–several generations of machines have yielded the nifty, powerful devices at right. But neither the music industry nor the government–whose copyright laws protected the industry through the analog age of cylinders, vinyl and tape–have adapted to the MP3 age. Now Congressional action looms.

More than 2.6 billion music files are illegally traded each month in the United States, says the Recording Industry of America, and that’s with only 10 percent of Internet users having broadband access. Everything the industry has done to stop the free exchange–lowering music prices, appealing to customers’ sense of fairness, offering paid services, attacking peer-to-peer file-sharing enablers and making CDs copy-resistant–has flopped. The only thing left, it reasons, is forcing manufacturers of PCs and MP3 players to integrate antipiracy technology. This approach would stymie buccaneers, at least for a while.

But it would also limit the freedom of honest consumers to control the media they’ve paid for. It’s legal, after all, to convert your CDs to MP3 files so you can listen to them on your iPod.

Manufacturers, naturally, are not amused. Moreover, music producers don’t have the legal authority to force them to embed rights-monitoring chips in their players. (The chips would read copyright information encoded in a song, determine if you were listening lawfully and then allow you to play it.) So the future of digital music–and digital video and HDTV, for that matter–is now wading into the swampy world of politics: The Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, introduced by Senator Fritz Hollings (R-S.C.) last March, would outlaw any “digital media device unless the device includes and utilizes standard security technologies that adhere to the security system standards” established by law. Translation: The government would legislate what manufacturers could build and bring to market. While the Hollings bill was sidelined in the all-Iraq 107th Congress, it will no doubt rise again in the coming year.

There’s reason for consumers to worry. Recent government actions seem to favor copyright holders’ interests: The 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, for example, pushed through by Disney when it realized early Mickey Mouse cartoons were about to fall into the

public domain, added 20 years to the copyright period. And Hollings’ bill got a further boost with the balance of power shifting to the Republicans in November’s elections. That said, both Hollywood and the consumer electronics and computer industries are deep-pocketed, so the decision may simply come down to the highest bidder.

What can you do while all this plays out? Aside from the proverbial “write your congressman” approach, you can only watch and wait. And, if you’re the type who enjoys flouting the law, make a few extra trips to Morpheus.