San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

War Against Pirated CDs, DVDs Frustrates

Increased efforts by the San José Municipal Police to combat the sale of pirated DVDs and CDs have netted the confiscation and destruction of a record 50,000-plus bootleg discs so far this year.

However, despite the increased commitment, street vendors of pirated discs remain ubiquitous along the city’s pedestrian walkways.

“The municipality will never be able to stop this,” said Kenneth, a street vendor who stood over his display near the Plaza de la Cultura in San José this week. “There are tons of people who have computers and networks to burn discs and distribute them.

They are easy to get and easy to sell. The police can try to stop this, but they can’t.”

The continuous supply of bootleg video and music sales is a challenge for the Municipal Police, though it does not appear to be the largest hurdle in the fight against pirated merchandise.

According to Marcelo Solano, general coordinator of the municipal force’s citizen security arm, police are handcuffed until the actual creators of the movies or music complain about the redistribution of their copyrighted materials

“The confiscation that takes place on the streets is actually not done for pirated discs, but rather because the vendors are obstructing the circulation of the people,” Solano said. “The problem is that further legal action requires a previous complaint from someone who feels their rights as the author of the goods have suffered a violation.

Because the creators of the discs and sources that distribute the original content haven’t complained about this to the courts, police authorities cannot intervene to rid the city of the pirated sales.”

The Origins of Piracy

The roots of music and video piracy in the Internet era are usually traced back to one name: Napster. As music files became available online, in 1999, Shawn Fanning, a then-student at NortheasternUniversity, in Massachusetts in the United States, created a music file-sharing service called

This service allowed people to obtain music files without having to purchase them. The online music industry exploded, and, during Napster’s two-years of glory, over two billion music files were downloaded from the Web site. When creators of the music caught wind of the free, unauthorized dissemination of their work, artists and producers cried copyright infringement, meaning their copyrighted product was being redistributed illegally.

They were right, and in 2001 Napster converted from a free service to a subscription service.

But the damage had been done. Software had been created to download and share music for free, and, while Napster ceased to distribute free music files, other Web sites picked up where it left off, allowing users to illegally download music and videos. Though the Web sites are illegal and they violate copyright law, they are rampant worldwide.

Despite some intervention to police the Internet pirating industry, the illegal distribution of free music continues to flourish.

Local Pirates

In 2000, over 943 million albums were sold, an all-time high for the industry. In 2008, album sales were tallied at 428 million, a nearly 55 percent decline in eight years.

Meanwhile, the number of paid album downloads in 2008 was recorded at over one billion, according to industry sources.

“It’s more convenient for people to download music from home than come in here and purchase it,” said Isaac Gutiérrez, who manages a video store in downtown San José. “It’s very rare that anyone comes in here to buy CDs anymore.”

Gutiérrez said that although his store does not participate in the sale of pirated music or videos, he knows of many stores in San José that do.

“If you have a burned copy of an album or a movie, all you have to do is wrap it up in the original box,” he said. “As long as it works, people don’t care if it is the original or not.”

Gutiérrez also said he believes street vendors undermine the efforts of video and movie stores. Street vendors sell a burned copy of the disc, which is essentially the same product, but have no overhead costs, such as rent or electricity bills.

Asked if the Municipal Police are aware of illegal sales of bootlegged videos or music in stores, Solano said it is a known practice, though the issue remains the same.

“There are no complaints by the distributors or producers for the offenses, so the police can’t perform an official act,” Solano said. “We would need a penal complaint from the Public Ministry to investigate and process offenders.”

Keeping Up the Fight

Earlier this month, San José Mayor Johnny Araya and the Municipal Police stood above a pile of 35,000 pirated DVDs and CDs confiscated from street vendors from March through August. The demonstration was held on the corners of Avenida 4 and Calle 3, southeast of the Finance Ministry, an area known for sales of pirated goods. The Municipal Police claimed to have seized the goods from over 350 vendors and said the discs were worth over $60,000.

“We are saying to them, forcefully, that all forms of mobile sales are illegal and that the government of the capital city isn’t going to permit it in public spaces,” Solano said.

“The sale of discs is the principal problem of mobile sales in San José. We are saying to them that nothing is going to impede us to accomplish our objective.”

Solano added that the Municipal Police intended to strengthen efforts to quell the sale of pirated goods by adding four new patrol cars to areas of high street vendor activity. He also said that 40 additional officers would be assigned to the area before the end of the year.

“We are saying to them that, although the music and movie producers and cinema apparently don’t have interest in the topic, the police are not going to permit this illegal business because the police are there to carry out the law,” he said. “The message is that we are not going to permit anyone to conduct any sort of illegal business in any location within the city.”

Though Solano is hopeful, it seems his optimism to slow pirated sales might be misplaced.

On Tuesday morning, a group of street vendors promoted their DVDs and CDs to pedestrians in downtown San José. At the sight of a police officer, one of the vendors shouted to warn the others. Within seconds, the vendors had scooped up their merchandise into their mobile carrying rugs. As one vendor prepared to scurry off, he told customers to be patient.

“Come back at one o’clock,” he said. “We’ll be back here then.”


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