Flood of knockoff merchandise triggers a wider crackdown across US
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That alarm has led businesses to work with police to conduct high-profile raids at places where suspected bootleggers congregate. Among multinational firms, enforcing laws against counterfeit goods is the No. 1 priority, according to a survey of 48 companies across 27 product categories, released last week by the International Chamber of Commerce.Skip to next paragraph
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"Various industries are really focusing on this as a big issue for them, and one of the things they're doing is partnering with local law enforcement," says Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who blogs at CounterfeitChic.com.
In Springfield, Ill., police had always left counterfeit cases to the local FBI office. But when officers stumbled upon some fishy DVDs at a record store, their investigation last week yielded a machine that could duplicate nine DVDs at a time, as well as movie titles such as "Stop Snitchin' " and "Cocaine Country: Manuel Noriega" on sale for $6 each, according to police. "When you think of middle America, you don't think of counterfeit CDs and DVDs," says Ernie Slottag, a city spokesman.
On Jan. 30, a day after attending a workshop on trademark infringement, police officers in Harrisonburg, Va., raided a store called Threads and seized what they say is $52,000 in counterfeit NFL, MLB, and Nike merchandise. The local newspaper called it a "crime of fashion."
In New York, where the famous Canal Street is a bazaar of knockoffs, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a video-piracy initiative that targets not only bootleg booty but also the pirates' makeshift film studios. The NYPD now has six officers working full time on piracy vice.
Conceding that counterfeiters cause real problems for unsuspecting consumers, critics of zealous law enforcement say such crackdowns can go too far.
Many cite last month's seizure in Atlanta of 80,000 mixtapes – popular songs and riffs that deejays mix into new tracks – and the arrest of well-known mix-master DJ Drama. Authorities have charged DJ Drama, who had built a small music production and distribution empire, with racketeering, and allege he stole other people's music to make his own products. His defenders say every artist borrows material from somewhere, and determining infringement becomes difficult when enforcement becomes aggressive.
"Anytime you go beyond actual copies and start to tread on the area of things that have been transformed in some way, [using local police] becomes a much more questionable type of enforcement," says Ms. Scafidi. "One thing we never want to do with intellectual property is to stop creativity."
Meanwhile, ambivalence about the plight of corporations, especially among low-income consumers, runs high. Some see businesses as making money by creating "artificial scarcity" that drives prices up, while selling style to the privileged. Knockoffs, in that view, become the consumer's revenge – the borrowing of an idea, rather than a physical theft.
"To call it theft in the traditional sense of the word is misleading, and it creates this real discord between what industries are trying to tell people and what they're pushing, which is really a defense of their economic position," says Abe Burmeister, a design writer and blogger at AbstractDynamics.org.
At Watson's Flea Market, footwear merchant Travis Lilley moved into a booth space left empty after the raid. A hand-painted sign hawks "real brand-names for $25." He says his goods are purchased legally in bulk. But Mr. Lilley also sympathizes with the bootlegging pariahs: "People are just trying to make a living."