The following editorial appeared recently in the New York Times:

After years of trying to stop illegal downloading of music and videos by suing their fans, enticing them to pay through easier formats and encrypting digital files, the music and movie industries hope they have found an effective approach to fighting copyright theft. This month, several major Internet service providers, including Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner Cable, agreed to help movie studios and record labels identify Internet users who downloaded copyrighted content illicitly, warn them about the piracy and punish recalcitrant abusers.

Under the agreement, the Internet providers would send up to four warning letters to owners of accounts suspected of pirating content. If illegal downloads continued, the ISPs could take a range of punitive measures — redirecting users to a landing page with material on copyright abuse, throttling their Internet speeds, possibly cutting their broadband connections.

The strategy is an attempt to deal with a problem that robs billions from music and movie businesses. The lobbying group for record labels says four out of five music downloads in the United States are illegal. Since 1999, legal music sales in this country have dropped by 55 percent, to $6.8 billion last year.

The agreement has troubling elements. Internet providers could, at their discretion, cut an infringing user's connection without a court order. But they can do that now for any user who violates the terms of service. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires providers to send a warning notice to infringing users if copyright holders ask them to. And providers must have a "termination policy" to cut off service to repeat offenders. Customers who receive the new warnings from the ISPs will be able to challenge the complaint.

Internet providers have always tried to avoid policing copyrights in this way because they are reluctant to terminate paying customers. Their entry into the media business gives them a compelling reason to act against infringers (Comcast bought NBC; Verizon and AT&T have movie delivery services). But the parties to the agreement underscored that shutting down a connection is not required.

The intent of the agreement is to give copyright owners a more subtle weapon against pirates. The recording industry already tried tougher legal tactics. But it was spending much more on lawyers than it was able to collect. Piracy continued apace. And it was a public relations disaster.

It remains to be seen whether the new approach will do better, but it is well worth a try.