Everyone has a pet-hate phrase that makes them release the safety catch on their revolver. This is a personal choice: whenever the issue of copyright theft is raised, someone earnestly gets up to berate speakers for the use of the word 'piracy'. It conjures up images in the minds of poor impressionable youngsters of Johnny Depp in the Caribbean, they say.

If worrying about children swashing their virtual buckles was worthy of serious consideration in discussing the problem, we could all sleep easily. But we are entering an era where our approach to copyright theft will come crashing back to centre stage.

Physical piracy - the production of illegal DVDs - has been bad enough, exposing the inadequacies of deterrent measures. The enforcement agencies have done their best and deserve a degree of praise. In terms of publicity, reminding responsible people that watching a pirate disc is the moral equivalent of the low-level crime they condemn in others is about as far as one can go.

Concentrating on the damage to the industry is less effective, one suspects, and the bigger the number attached to the losses, the more an individual act feels like a drop in the ocean - even a victimless crime. In policing terms, no doubt the level of sophistication and intelligence applied puts previous efforts in the shade. But when an individual raid still makes a news story, you know those caught remain a tiny minority.

At least buying a DVD requires some sort of interaction with the grubby end of the criminal enterprise. Online piracy is more sanitised and for some is a moral grey area that is going to be hard to break down.

File sharing has always represented difficulties, both in getting a message across to consumers and in enforcement. Just this week, the European Court of Justice ruled an internet service provider could not be forced under European Union law to disclose the name of customers suspected of swapping copyrighted material. What's more, sites that do actually require payment but infringe copyright laws are growing. The Russian-based Allofmp3.com had a damaging effect on the music industry with its low-cost downloads. Payment at the very least muddies the moral waters.

Technically, of course, staying ahead of piracy is difficult but the most obvious solution is fraught with problems. Theoretically, ISPs could be forced to disclose customers' activity and we are not that far away from the ability to send individual customers an onscreen warning. But heavy-handed policing of the net and the ability to monitor and control individual use will make a lot of people extremely uneasy.

And let's not forget the numbers who know how to share files or find movies illegally grow every day. The war on piracy looks a hell of a lot like the war on drugs or the war on terror - even trying to win can bring unexpected defeat.

None of that should be a reason for not stepping up efforts. The simple fact is money is going away from artists and towards criminals. But the reality from the music and games industries is that enforcement must go hand-in-hand with legitimate alternatives.

That's no easy choice. Musicians are now having to experiment with free content. In South Korea, gaming giant Electronic Arts has been allowing one of its games to be downloaded for free with micropayments for added extras (and finding the policy actually pays). In both cases, the businesses have been forced to accept their customers' world as it is, not as they would like it to be. Disinventing the internet would be high on many wish lists these days, but it's not going to happen.

When the current methods of distribution are so limited that great films are left unseen, film has some real opportunities in terms of finding new means to reach customers legitimately. But whether the customer is wearing a frilly shirt and an eye patch is the very least of our concerns.