“Along with artists, producers, engineers, back-up singers, songwriters, and many others within the music community that are profoundly impacted by the kind of music theft Ms. Thomas-Rasset willfully engaged in, we take this case very seriously,” RIAA spokeswoman Liz Kennedy says.
The logic seems sound, but financially bludgeoning fans tends to generate bad PR. So, for the last few years, the industry has been moving away from the massive-litigation approach. All the same, the RIAA still faces a harrowing economic reality. In an age of file-sharing and music-streaming, music sales have dropped 47 percent, according to Kennedy. In January, Cake took the No. 1 album slot on Billboard by selling a mere 440,000 copies of Showroom of Compassion. “Global music piracy causes $12.5 billion of economic losses every year, 71,060 U.S. jobs lost, a loss of $2.7 billion in workers’ earnings, and a loss of $422 million in tax revenues, $291 million in personal income tax, and $131 million in lost corporate income and production taxes,” Kennedy says.
No wonder music companies have cheered as law enforcement got into the anti-copying act. By targeting unauthorized producers and distributors of copyrighted music—as well as clothing and movies—the authorities don’t risk the publicity backlash that comes when a collection of powerful entertainment companies sue homemakers.
The industry pushed hard to get cops involved. A training video leaked in 2008, produced by the RIAA with the National District Attorneys Association, suggested busting copyright violators could lead to drug and gun arrests. (“It might allow you to have probable cause for a drug house you couldn’t get in before,” an official says. “Well, now you can get in by purchasing or doing undercover purchases of illegal CDs.”)
In some cases, the RIAA has even put together teams of ex-cops to do its own police-style raids on those believed to be selling music illegally. The association’s executive vice president of anti-piracy has said the RIAA works with hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the nation and participates in the arrests of thousands of alleged bootleggers.
As local police departments and federal agencies turned their attention to pirates, and the cases switched to criminal prosecution rather than civil suits, the RIAA stayed involved.
The warrant that allowed MPD to storm ListenVision shows that D.C. police have their eyes out for audio contraband. Listen Vision once had a blue, neon sign hanging in its picture window that advertised mixtapes. “It’s just a compilation of original music. That’s our definition of mixtapes,” Beaver says.
The sign, which was mentioned in the warrant, could have been what drew an undercover officer to the studio on Nov. 15. According to court documents, the officer bought two CDs from the studio that included the following A-list artists: “T-Pain, KRS1 [sic], Beastie Boys, and Raheem DeVaughn.”
Listen Vision was selling “deceptively labeled and commercially pirated items,” the warrant said.
Beaver knows the CDs the warrant referred to, so when he was told why the cops were going through his establishment, he says he argued Listen Vision’s compilations were legit. Sure, the discs featured heavy hitters like the Beastie Boys and KRS-ONE, but he had worked with every one of them. “You’ve worked with the Beastie Boys?” Beaver says the RIAA rep scoffed.
Beaver doesn’t remember the rep’s name, but RIAA investigator Mike Middleton is mentioned in the search warrant. (Middleton didn’t return messages left at a consulting firm he’s associated with.) Kennedy says the RIAA regularly hires contractors like Middleton.
Confronted with the rep’s disbelief, Beaver says, he encouraged him to listen to the CDs, which include shout outs to Listen Vision by performers. On a track that features Ghostface, Cappadonna, and Garvey, one of the rappers spits: “When I step in the booth I commence to spitting behind DJ Boom/That’s a big collision.” And on “Bring the Real Back” by KRS-ONE and Rasi Caprice, KRS announces: “I’m rocking right now with DJ Boom/This is KRS-One all in the room.”
The thing is, though, that even if the artists did record with Beaver, he wasn’t necessarily allowed to sell their work. According to D.C.-based copyright attorney Elliott Alderman, “typically there isn’t a rights transfer involved in a recording agreement.”
Alderman and several other entertainment lawyers say it was possible that Beaver has that ability: The complex world of song rights creates endless possibilities. But Beaver hasn’t produced any contract explaining things one way or the other; he claims he’s encumbered by a non-disclosure agreement.
Adding to the murkiness is a longstanding unspoken agreement among hip-hop artists. Mixtapes are done “not infrequently in the hip-hop area. It’s usually done with at least the tacit consent of the label,” says Kenneth Kaufman, a D.C. entertainment lawyer who’s taught a music law course at Yale. The tape creates a buzz, says Kaufman, and it probably doesn’t hurt sales. But “it depends on what the understanding is between the artist and the producer,” Kaufman says.
The understanding goes more or less like this: You can include my songs on a mixtape, as long as that mixtape isn’t wack. Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of agreement that courts and cops usually honor.