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The RIAA's Enforcer Speaks Up

Bradley Buckles used to bust gunrunners. Now he's after CD pirates

April 12, 2004 12:00 AM ET

Bradley Buckles, the new head of anti-piracy for the Recording Industry Association of America, hasn't been to a concert since attending a Who show more than twenty years ago. The former director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is a lifetime law-enforcement officer with a reputation for steely toughness. But despite his "just the facts" demeanor, Buckles may not be the enforcer that music fans have feared.

He had nothing to do with the lawsuits filed March 23rd against 532 file-sharers, according to a spokeswoman for the RIAA, the major labels' lobbying group. And in an hour-long interview with Rolling Stone in his Washington, D.C., office, Buckles stressed that his background and what he has discovered on the job have led him more in the direction of offline illegal activity. File-sharing remains part of the equation, but illegal CD copying and sales "is the number-one priority," he says. "We're focusing our efforts as high on the chain of production as we can go."

Buckles, 54, repeatedly returns to the point that large-scale illegal CD pressing is on the rise. Improved technology has made it easier to copy music illegally, and some retailers have started to stock counterfeits, even without their knowledge. In February, Buckles' office sent letters to nearly thirty businesses that were selling illegal CDs and music DVDs, offering them a choice of settling claims or facing legal action. (He refuses to divulge the retailers' names.) On March 26th, Buckles teamed with the New York Police Department to bust one of the largest counterfeit-CD rings in the Northeast, seizing 100 high-speed burners and 15,000 illegally copied CDs.

"This is happening on all kinds of scales," Buckles says. "Some operations are like small meth labs with CD burners. We're also finding hard-pressed CDs from people who have made large businesses out of this."

Buckles' office made its first misstep on March 5th, with an attempted ban on the Double Black Album, a mix of Metallica's and Jay-Z's Black Albums, an action that the RIAA retracted and labeled "a mistake." But since being hired on December 8th, he has spent most of his time meeting with RIAA agents, the FBI and other law-enforcement officials in order to explain why piracy deserves police attention -- a legal necessity, since the RIAA can't start criminal cases of its own. He has also been pushing for a higher level of information-sharing between offices. "We want to be able to make connections between what's taking place in New York and Chicago, so we can make a larger case," he says.

Buckles put a similar system in place when he took over at the ATF in 1999, six years after the siege of David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult. "He gave assistant directors more responsibility and started a stand-alone intelligence directory," says acting ATF director Edgar Domenech, Buckles' former deputy. "He's a believer in team-building."

Critics, however, fear that Buckles will soon be forced to adopt the RIAA's strong-arm approach to file-sharing. "The people who hired him have lost the distinction between the online and offline world, and I'm sure they're telling him what his priorities should be," says Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy group. "I'm not optimistic."

Buckles says that his focus will depend on "where most of the damage is." But he has already told his two teenage children to stay away from file-sharing -- "They groan when I talk about it," he says -- and Buckles admits to having no sympathy for people who are being sued. "It's the only way we can get at the people who are doing the distribution," he says, adding, "The industry is bleeding."

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