Though no guns were brandished, the bust from a distance looked like classic LAPD, DEA or FBI work, right down to the black "raid" vests the unit members wore. The fact that their yellow stenciled lettering read "RIAA" instead of something from an official law-enforcement agency was lost on 55-year-old parking-lot attendant Ceasar Borrayo.
The Recording Industry Association of America is taking it to the streets.
Even as it suffers setbacks in the courtroom, the RIAA has over the last 18 months built up a national staff of ex-cops to crack down on people making and selling illegal CDs in the hood.
The result has been a growing number of scenes like the one played out in Silver Lake just before Christmas, during an industry blitz to combat music piracy.
Borrayo attends to a parking lot next to the landmark El 7 Mares fish-taco stand on Sunset Boulevard. To supplement his buck-a-car income, he began, in 2003, selling records and videos from a makeshift stand in front of the lot.
In a good week, Borrayo said, he might unload five or 10 albums and a couple DVDs at $5 apiece. Paying a distributor about half that up-front, he thought he’d lucked into a nice side business.
The RIAA saw it differently. Figuring the discs were bootlegs, a four-man RIAA squad descended on his stand a few days before Christmas and persuaded the 4-foot-11 Borrayo to hand over voluntarily a total of 78 discs. It wasn’t a tough sell.
"They said they were police from the recording industry or something, and next time they’d take me away in handcuffs," he said through an interpreter. Borrayo says he has no way of knowing if the records, with titles like Como Te Extraño Vol. IV — Musica de los 70’s y 80’s, are illegal, but he thought better of arguing the point.
The RIAA acknowledges it all — except the notion that its staff presents itself as police. Yes, they may all be ex-P.D. Yes, they wear cop-style clothes and carry official-looking IDs. But if they leave people like Borrayo with the impression that they’re actual law enforcement, that’s a mistake.
"We want to be very clear who we are and what we’re doing," says John Langley, Western regional coordinator for the RIAA Anti-Piracy Unit. "First and foremost, we’re professionals."
Langley, based in Los Alamitos, California, oversees five staff investigators and around 20 contractors who sniff out bootleg discs west of the Rockies. The former Royal Canadian Mountie said his unit’s on-the-streets approach has been a big success, netting more than 100,000 pieces of unauthorized merchandise during the recent Christmas retail blitz.
With all the trappings of a police team, including pink incident reports that, among other things, record a vendor’s height, weight, hair and eye color, the RIAA squad can give those busted the distinct impression they’re tangling with minions of Johnny Law instead of David Geffen. And that raises some potential legal questions.
Contacted for this article, the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said it needed more information on the practices to know if specific civil liberties were at risk.
But if an anti-piracy team crossed the line between looking like cops and implying or telling vendors that they are cops, the Los Angeles Police Department would take a pretty dim view, said LAPD spokesman Jason Lee.
"I will not say it’s okay to be [selling] illegal stuff," Lee said. "That’s a violation of penal codes.
"But it doesn’t really matter what your status is. If that person feels he was wrongly interrogated or under the false pretense that these people were cops, they should contact their local police station as a victim. We’ll sort it all out."
For its part, the RIAA maintains that the up-close-and-personal techniques are nothing new. RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy says its investigators do not represent themselves as police, and that the incident reports vendors are asked to sign, in which they agree to hand over their discs, explicitly state that the forfeiture is voluntary.
Lamy and the RIAA are unapologetic about taking the fight against music piracy to the streets. Though the association has suffered a few high-profile legal setbacks in recent months — most notably when a three-judge panel ruled that Internet service providers do not have to squeal on their file-swapping customers — community action is extremely effective.
Langley says the anti-piracy teams have about an 80 percent success rate in persuading vendors to hand over their merchandise voluntarily for destruction.
"We notify them that continued sale would be a violation of civil and criminal codes. If they’d like to voluntarily turn the product over to us, we’ll destroy it, and we agree we won’t sue," he explained.
The pink incident sheets and photos that Langley’s teams take of vendors are meant to establish a paper trail, particularly for repeat offenders.
"A large percentage [of the vendors] are of a Hispanic nature," Langley said. "Today he’s Jose Rodriguez, tomorrow he’s Raul something or other, and tomorrow after that he’s something else. These people change their identity all the time. A picture’s worth a thousand words."
Though Langley says he doesn’t know what tack his new boss will take, the recent hiring of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Director Bradley Buckles to head the anti-piracy unit has some RIAA watchers holding their breath.
On its face, the move looks like a shift toward even more in-your-face enforcement. But don’t expect all RIAA critics to rally to the side of Borrayo and other sellers.
"The process of confiscating bootleg CDs from street vendors is exactly what the RIAA should be doing," said Jason Schultz, a staff attorney for the San Francisco–based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The EFF has frequently crossed swords with the record industry over its strategy of suing ISPs and individual listeners accused of downloading tunes from the Internet. A champion of copyright "fair use," the EFF says Buckles could bring a more balanced approach to the RIAA’s anti-piracy efforts. The more time the association spends rousting vendors, the thinking goes, the less it will spend subpoenaing KaZaa and BearShare aficionados.
Meanwhile, Borrayo will have to keep his eyes open for another source of income. Though he says he still sees nothing wrong with what he did, the guy who once supplied him records hasn’t been around in a couple months.
"They tried to scare me," Borrayo said. "They told me, ‘You’re a pirate!’ I said, ‘C’mon, guys, pirates are all at sea. I just work in a parking lot.’ "