NEW YORK — A system designed to help the hearing-impaired at concerts has provided bootleggers with a new tool to make illegal live recordings of exceptional quality, according to the record industry.
This latest wrinkle in the multimillion-dollar bootlegging industry takes advantage of a federal law requiring arenas to offer patrons use of an assistive listening device (ALD).
"We know through criminal investigations and informants that this is a common practice," said Frank Creighton, senior vice president of anti-piracy at the Recording Industry Association of America.
Bootleggers can simply request an ALD headset, which provides a high-quality feed of a live show via a low-level FM frequency broadcast inside a facility.
The music pirates then steal the headset feed, giving them concert performances devoid of the usual bootleg problems such as random crowd noise or distortion, Creighton said.
"The quality is much higher than a typical bootleg," Creighton continued. "No question about it."
Bootleggers are using the devices provided for the hearing-impaired to record near-pristine versions of concerts by veterans like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan plus a plethora of new acts.
"Every major act that's in the Billboard top 100 is getting bootlegged in some manner," Creighton says.
Advocates for the hearing impaired were appalled by the new pirating technique.
"Oh my goodness! What concerns me is if this becomes so prevalent that the service is dropped," said Mercy Coogan of Gallaudet University, the college for deaf and hard of hearing students based in Washington, D.C.
"That could prohibit a whole lot of hard of hearing people from this very important mode of access."
Arenas are required to provide the ALDs under the federal Americans with Disability Act, which marked its 10th anniversary Wednesday.
Typical of the ALD bootlegs is an Aug. 22, 1999, Springsteen concert from Boston's Fleet Center — one of the most popular illegal recordings of the Boss' E Street Band reunion tour, according to Internet sites.
The three-CD collection is advertised as "soundboard quality," with various mentions that it was done via an ALD.
"If there (is) anybody who don't own a single boot, buy this," raved one bootleg buyer at a Springsteen site. "The sound is so good you'll think it's an official release!!!"
The ALD rip-offs were news to officials at several major concert venues from coast to coast, including the new Staples Center in Los Angeles and the First Union Center in Philadelphia.
"We have the devices, but I haven't heard of this," said Ike Williams of the First United Center in Philadelphia.