The dawn of online piracy.
BY STEPHEN WITT
Dell Glover manufactured CDs for a living, but he began to wonder: if the MP3 was just as good, why bother with the CD?
CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY JEHAD NGA
One Saturday in 1994, Bennie Lydell Glover, a temporary employee at the PolyGram compact-disk manufacturing plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, went to a party at the house of a co-worker. He was angling for a permanent position, and the party was a chance to network with his managers. Late in the evening, the host put on music to get people dancing. Glover, a fixture at clubs in Charlotte, an hour away, had never heard any of the songs before, even though many of them were by artists whose work he enjoyed.
Later, Glover realized that the host had been d.j.’ing with music that had been smuggled out of the plant. He was surprised. Plant policy required all permanent employees to sign a “No Theft Tolerated” agreement. He knew that the plant managers were concerned about leaking, and he’d heard of employees being arrested for embezzling inventory. But at the party, even in front of the supervisors, it seemed clear that the disks had been getting out. In time, Glover became aware of a far-reaching underground trade in pre-release disks. “We’d run them in the plant in the week, and they’d have them in the flea markets on the weekend,” he said. “It was a real leaky plant.”
The factory sat on a hundred acres of woodland and had more than three hundred thousand square feet of floor space. It ran shifts around the clock, every day of the year. New albums were released in record stores on Tuesdays, but they needed to be pressed, packaged, and shrink-wrapped weeks in advance. On a busy day, the plant produced a quarter of a million CDs. Its lineage was distinguished: PolyGram was a division of the Dutch consumer-electronics giant Philips, the co-inventor of the CD.
One of Glover’s co-workers was Tony Dockery, another temporary hire. The two worked opposite ends of the shrink-wrapping machine, twelve feet apart. Glover was a “dropper”: he fed the packaged disks into the machine. Dockery was a “boxer”: he took the shrink-wrapped jewel cases and stacked them in a cardboard box for shipping. The jobs paid about ten dollars an hour.
Glover and Dockery soon became friends. They lived in the same town, Shelby, and Glover started giving Dockery a ride to work. They liked the same music. They made the same money. Most important, they were both fascinated by computers, an unusual interest for two working-class Carolinians in the early nineties—the average Shelbyite was more likely to own a hunting rifle than a PC. Glover’s father had been a mechanic, and his grandfather, a farmer, had moonlighted as a television repairman. In 1989, when Glover was fifteen, he went to Sears and bought his first computer: a twenty-three-hundred-dollar PC clone with a one-color monitor. His mother co-signed as the guarantor on the layaway plan. Tinkering with the machine, Glover developed an expertise in hardware assembly, and began to earn money fixing the computers of his friends and neighbors.
By the time of the party, he’d begun to experiment with the nascent culture of the Internet, exploring bulletin-board systems and America Online. Soon, Glover also purchased a CD burner, one of the first produced for home consumers. It cost around six hundred dollars. He began to make mixtapes of the music he already owned, and sold them to friends. “There was a lot of people down my way selling shoes, pocketbooks, CDs, movies, and fencing stolen stuff,” he told me. “I didn’t think they’d ever look at me for what I was doing.” But the burner took forty minutes to make a single copy, and business was slow.
Glover began to consider selling leaked CDs from the plant. He knew a couple of employees who were smuggling them out, and a pre-release album from a hot artist, copied to a blank disk, would be valuable. (Indeed, recording executives at the time saw this as a key business risk.) But PolyGram’s offerings just weren’t that good. The company had a dominant position in adult contemporary, but the kind of people who bought knockoff CDs from the trunk of a car didn’t want Bryan Adams and Sheryl Crow. They wanted Jay Z, and the plant didn’t have it.
By 1996, Glover, who went by Dell, had a permanent job at the plant, with higher pay, benefits, and the possibility of more overtime. He began working double shifts, volunteering for every available slot. “We wouldn’t allow him to work more than six consecutive days,” Robert Buchanan, one of his former managers, said. “But he would try.”
The overtime earnings funded new purchases. In the fall of 1996, Hughes Network Systems introduced the country’s first consumer-grade broadband satellite Internet access. Glover and Dockery signed up immediately. The service offered download speeds of up to four hundred kilobits per second, seven times that of even the best dial-up modem.
Glover left AOL behind. He soon found that the real action was in the chat rooms. Internet Relay Chat networks tended to be noncommercial, hosted by universities and private individuals and not answerable to corporate standards of online conduct. You created a username and joined a channel, indicated by a pound sign: #politics, #sex, #computers. Glover and Dockery became chat addicts; sometimes, even after spending the entire day together, they hung out in the same chat channel after work. On IRC, Dockery was St. James, or, sometimes, Jah Jah. And Glover was ADEG, or, less frequently, Darkman. Glover did not have a passport and hardly ever left the South, but IRC gave him the opportunity to interact with strangers from all over the world.
“Look, the new emoji are here.”
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Also, he could share files. Online, pirated media files were known as “warez,” from “software,” and were distributed through a subculture dating back to at least 1980, which called itself the Warez Scene. The Scene was organized in loosely affiliated digital crews, which raced one another to be the first to put new material on the IRC channel. Software was often available on the same day that it was officially released. Sometimes it was even possible, by hacking company servers, or through an employee, to pirate a piece of software before it was available in stores. The ability to regularly source pre-release leaks earned one the ultimate accolade in digital piracy: to be among the “elite.”
By the mid-nineties, the Scene had moved beyond software piracy into magazines, pornography, pictures, and even fonts. In 1996, a Scene member with the screen name NetFraCk started a new crew, the world’s first MP3 piracy group: Compress ’Da Audio, or CDA, which used the newly available MP3 standard, a format that could shrink music files by more than ninety per cent. On August 10, 1996, CDA released to IRC the Scene’s first “officially” pirated MP3: “Until It Sleeps,” by Metallica. Within weeks, there were numerous rival crews and thousands of pirated songs.
Glover’s first visit to an MP3-trading chat channel came shortly afterward. He wasn’t sure what an MP3 was or who was making the files. He simply downloaded software for an MP3 player, and put in requests for the bots of the channel to serve him files. A few minutes later, he had a small library of songs on his hard drive.
One of the songs was Tupac Shakur’s “California Love,” the hit single that had become inescapable after Tupac’s death, several weeks earlier, in September, 1996. Glover loved Tupac, and when his album “All Eyez on Me” came through the PolyGram plant, in a special distribution deal with Interscope Records, he had even shrink-wrapped some of the disks. Now he played the MP3 of “California Love.” Roger Troutman’s talk-box intro came rattling through his computer speakers, followed by Dr. Dre’s looped reworking of the piano hook from Joe Cocker’s “Woman to Woman.” Then came Tupac’s voice, compressed and digitized from beyond the grave, sounding exactly as it did on the CD.
At work, Glover manufactured CDs for mass consumption. At home, he had spent more than two thousand dollars on burners and other hardware to produce them individually. His livelihood depended on continued demand for the product. But Glover had to wonder: if the MP3 could reproduce Tupac at one-eleventh the bandwidth, and if Tupac could then be distributed, free, on the Internet, what the hell was the point of a compact disk?
In 1998, Seagram Company announced that it was purchasing PolyGram from Philips and merging it with the Universal Music Group. The deal comprised the global pressing and distribution network, including the Kings Mountain plant. The employees were nervous, but management told them not to worry; the plant wasn’t shutting down—it was expanding. The music industry was enjoying a period of unmatched profitability, charging more than fourteen dollars for a CD that cost less than two dollars to manufacture. The executives at Universal thought that this state of affairs was likely to continue. In the prospectus that they filed for the PolyGram acquisition, they did not mention the MP3 among the anticipated threats to the business.
The production lines were upgraded to manufacture half a million CDs a day. There were more shifts, more overtime hours, and more music. Universal, it seemed, had cornered the market on rap. Jay Z, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Cash Money—Glover packaged the albums himself.
Six months after the merger, Shawn Fanning, an eighteen-year-old college dropout from Northeastern University, débuted a public file-sharing platform he had invented called Napster. Fanning had spent his adolescence in the same IRC underground as Glover and Dockery, and was struck by the inefficiency of its distribution methods. Napster replaced IRC bots with a centralized “peer-to-peer” server that allowed people to swap files directly. Within a year, the service had ten million users.
Before Napster, a leaked album had caused only localized damage. Now it was a catastrophe. Universal rolled out its albums with heavy promotion and expensive marketing blitzes: videos, radio spots, television campaigns, and appearances on late-night TV. The availability of pre-release music on the Internet interfered with this schedule, upsetting months of work by publicity teams and leaving the artists feeling betrayed.
Even before Napster’s launch, the plant had begun to implement a new anti-theft regimen. Steve Van Buren, who managed security at the plant, had been pushing for better safeguards since before the Universal merger, and he now instituted a system of randomized searches. Each employee was required to swipe a magnetized identification card upon leaving the plant. Most of the time, a green light appeared and the employee could leave. Occasionally, though, the card triggered a red light, and the employee was made to stand in place as a security guard ran a wand over his body, searching for the thin aluminum coating of a compact disk.
Van Buren succeeded in getting some of the flea-market bootleggers shut down. Plant management had heard of the technician who had been d.j.’ing parties with pre-release music, and Van Buren requested that he take a lie-detector test. The technician failed, and was fired. Even so, Glover’s contacts at the plant could still reliably get leaked albums. One had even sneaked out an entire manufacturing spindle of three hundred disks, and was selling them for five dollars each. But this was an exclusive trade, and only select employees knew who was engaged in it.
By this time, Glover had built a tower of seven CD burners, which stood next to his computer. He could produce about thirty copies an hour, which made bootlegging more profitable, so he scoured the other underground warez networks for material to sell: PlayStation games, PC applications, MP3 files—anything that could be burned to a disk and sold for a few dollars.
He focussed especially on movies, which fetched five dollars each. New compression technology could shrink a feature film to fit on a single CD. The video quality was poor, but business was brisk, and soon he was buying blank CDs in bulk. He bought a label printer to catalogue his product, and a color printer to make mockups of movie posters. He filled a black nylon binder with images of the posters, and used it as a sales catalogue. He kept his inventory in the trunk of his Jeep and sold the movies out of his car.
“We couldn’t find a raw-vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, non-G.M.O. cake for your birthday, so we got you nothing.”
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Glover still considered it too risky to sell leaked CDs from the plant. Nevertheless, he enjoyed keeping up with current music, and the smugglers welcomed him as a customer. He was a permanent employee with no rap sheet and an interest in technology, but outside the plant he had a reputation as a roughrider. He owned a Japanese street-racing motorcycle, which he took to Black Bike Week, in Myrtle Beach. He had owned several handguns, and on his forearm was a tattoo of the Grim Reaper, walking a pit bull on a chain.
His co-worker Dockery, by contrast, was a clean-cut churchgoer, and too square for the smugglers. But he had started bootlegging, too, and he pestered Glover to supply him with leaked CDs. In addition, Dockery kept finding files online that Glover couldn’t: movies that were still in theatres, PlayStation games that weren’t scheduled to be released for months.
For a while, Glover traded leaked disks for Dockery’s software and movies. But eventually he grew tired of acting as Dockery’s courier, and asked why the disks were so valuable. Dockery invited him to his house one night, where he outlined the basics of the warez underworld. For the past year or so, he’d been uploading the pre-release leaks Glover gave him to a shadowy network of online enthusiasts. This was the Scene, and Dockery, on IRC, had joined one of its most élite groups: Rabid Neurosis, or RNS. (Dockery declined to comment for this story.)
Instead of pirating individual songs, RNS was pirating entire albums, bringing the pre-release mentality from software to music. The goal was to beat the official release date whenever possible, and that meant a campaign of infiltration against the major labels.
The leader of RNS went by the handle Kali. He was a master of surveillance and infiltration, the Karla of music piracy. It seemed that he spent hours each week researching the confusing web of corporate acquisitions and pressing agreements that determined where and when CDs would be manufactured. With this information, he built a network of moles who, in the next eight years, managed to burrow into the supply chains of every major music label. “This stuff had to be his life, because he knew about all the release dates,” Glover said.
Dockery—known to Kali as St. James—was his first big break. According to court documents, Dockery encountered several members of RNS in a chat room, including Kali. Here he learned of the group’s desire for pre-release tracks. He soon joined RNS and became one of its best sources. But, when his family life began to interfere, he proposed that Glover take his place.
Glover hesitated: what was in it for him?
He learned that Kali was a gatekeeper to the secret “topsite” servers that formed the backbone of the Scene. The ultra-fast servers contained the best pirated media of every form. The Scene’s servers were well hidden, and log-ons were permitted only from pre-approved Internet addresses. The Scene controlled its inventory as tightly as Universal did—maybe tighter.
If Glover was willing to upload smuggled CDs from the plant to Kali, he’d be given access to these topsites, and he’d never have to pay for media again. He could hear the new Outkast album weeks before anyone else did. He could play Madden NFL on his PlayStation a month before it became available in stores. And he could get the same movies that had allowed Dockery to beat him as a bootlegger.
Dockery arranged a chat-room session for Glover and Kali, and the two exchanged cell-phone numbers. In their first call, Glover mostly just listened. Kali spoke animatedly, in a patois of geekspeak, California mellow, and slang borrowed from West Coast rap. He loved computers, but he also loved hip-hop, and he knew all the beefs, all the disses, and all the details of the feuds among artists on different labels. He also knew that, in the aftermath of the murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., those feuds were dying down. Def Jam, Cash Money, and Interscope had all signed distribution deals with Universal. Kali’s research kept taking him back to the Kings Mountain plant.
He and Glover hashed out the details of their partnership. Kali would track the release dates of upcoming albums and tell Glover which material he was interested in. Glover would acquire smuggled CDs from the plant. He would then rip the leaked CDs to the MP3 format and, using encrypted channels, send them to Kali’s home computer. Kali packaged the MP3s according to the Scene’s exacting technical standards and released them to its topsites.
The deal sounded good to Glover, but to fulfill Kali’s requests he’d have to get new albums from the plant much more frequently, three or four times a week. This would be difficult. In addition to the randomized search gantlet, a fence had been erected around the parking lot. Emergency exits set off alarms. Laptop computers were forbidden in the plant, as were stereos, portable players, boom boxes, and anything else that might accept and read a CD.
Every once in a while, a marquee release would come through—“The Eminem Show,” say, or Nelly’s “Country Grammar.” It arrived in a limousine with tinted windows, carried from the production studio in a briefcase by a courier who never let the master tape out of his sight. When one of these albums was pressed, Van Buren ordered wandings for every employee in the plant.
The CD-pressing machines were digitally controlled, and they generated error-proof records of their output. The shrink-wrapped disks were logged with an automated bar-code scanner. The plant’s management generated a report, tracking which CDs had been printed and which had actually shipped, and any discrepancy had to be accounted for. The plant might now press more than half a million copies of a popular album in a day, but the inventory could be tracked at the level of the individual disk.
Employees like Glover, who worked on the packaging line, had the upper hand when it came to smuggling CDs. Farther down the line and the disks would be bar-coded and logged in inventory; farther up and they wouldn’t have access to the final product. By this time, the packaging line was becoming increasingly complex. The chief advantage of the compact disk over the MP3 was the satisfaction of owning a physical object. Universal was really selling packaging. Album art had become ornate. The disks were gold or fluorescent, the jewel cases were opaque blue or purple, and the album sleeves were thick booklets printed on high-quality paper. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of extra disks were now being printed for every run, to be used as replacements in case any were damaged during packaging.
“A lot of them I only pretend to watch over.”
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At the end of each shift, employees put the overstock disks into scrap bins. These scrap bins were later taken to a plastics grinder, where the disks were destroyed. Over the years, Glover had dumped hundreds of perfectly good disks into the bins, and he knew that the grinder had no memory and generated no records. If there were twenty-four disks and only twenty-three made it into the grinder’s feed slot, no one in accounting would know.
So, on the way from the conveyor belt to the grinder, an employee could take off his surgical glove while holding a disk. He could wrap the glove around the disk and tie it off. He could then hide the disk, leaving everything else to be destroyed. At the end of his shift, he could return and grab the disk.
That still left the security guards. But here, too, there were options. One involved belt buckles. They were the signature fashion accessories of small-town North Carolina. Many people at the plant wore them—big oval medallions with the Stars and Bars on them. Gilt-leaf plates embroidered with fake diamonds that spelled out the word “BOSS.” Western-themed cowboy buckles with longhorn skulls and gold trim. The buckles always set off the wand, but the guards wouldn’t ask anyone to take them off.
Hide the disk inside the glove; hide the glove inside a machine; retrieve the glove and tuck it into your waistband; cinch your belt so tight it hurts your bladder; position your oversized belt buckle in front of the disk; cross your fingers as you shuffle toward the turnstile; and, if you get flagged, play it very cool when you set off the wand.
From 2001 on, Glover was the world’s leading leaker of pre-release music. He claims that he never smuggled the CDs himself. Instead, he tapped a network of low-paid temporary employees, offering cash or movies for leaked disks. The handoffs took place at gas stations and convenience stores far from the plant. Before long, Glover earned a promotion, which enabled him to schedule the shifts on the packaging line. If a prized release came through the plant, he had the power to ensure that his man was there.
The pattern of label consolidation had led to a stream of hits at Universal’s factory. Weeks before anyone else, Glover had the hottest albums of the year. He ripped the albums on his PC with software that Kali had sent, and then uploaded the files to him. The two made weekly phone calls to schedule the timing of the leaks.
Glover left the distribution to Kali. Unlike many Scene members, he didn’t participate in technical discussions about the relative merits of constant and variable bit rates. He listened to the CDs, but he often grew bored after only one or two plays. When he was done with a disk, he stashed it in a black duffelbag in his bedroom closet.
By 2002, the duffelbag held more than five hundred disks, including nearly every major release to have come through the Kings Mountain plant. Glover leaked Lil Wayne’s “500 Degreez” and Jay Z’s “The Blueprint.” He leaked Queens of the Stone Age’s “Rated R” and 3 Doors Down’s “Away from the Sun.” He leaked Björk. He leaked Ashanti. He leaked Ja Rule. He leaked Nelly. He leaked Blink-182’s “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket.”
Glover didn’t have access to big-tent mom-rock artists like Celine Dion and Cher. But his albums tended to be the most sought after in the demographic that mattered: generation Eminem. The typical Scene participant was a computer-obsessed male, between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Kali—whose favorite artists included Ludacris, Jay Z, and Dr. Dre—was the perfect example. For Glover, the high point of 2002 came in May, when he leaked “The Eminem Show” twenty-five days before its official release. The leak made its way from the Scene’s topsites to public peer-to-peer networks within hours, and, even though the album became the year’s best-seller, Eminem was forced to bump up its release date.
Every Scene release was accompanied by an NFO (from “info”), an ASCII-art text file that served as the releasing group’s signature tag. NFO files were a way for Scene crews to brag about their scores, shout out important associates, and advertise to potential recruits. Rabid Neurosis NFOs were framed by psychedelic smoke trails emanating from a marijuana leaf at the bottom:
TEAM RNS PRESENTS
TITLE: The Eminem Show
RIPPER: Team RNS
1hr 17min total-111.6 mb
RELEASE DATE: 2002-06-04
RIP DATE: 2002-05-10
The most important line was the rip date, which emphasized the timeliness of the leak. Kali drafted many of the release notes himself, in a sarcastic tone, often taunting rival releasing groups. “The Eminem Show” NFO ended with a question: “Who else did you think would get this?”
Who was Kali? Glover wasn’t sure, but as their relationship evolved he picked up some clues. Kali’s 818 area code was from the Los Angeles region. The voice in the background that Glover sometimes heard on the calls sounded as if it might be Kali’s mother. There was also the marijuana leaf that served as RNS’s official emblem: Glover thought he could tell when Kali was high. Most striking was the exaggerated hip-hop swagger that Kali affected. He only ever referred to Glover as “D.” No one else called him that.
“He would try to talk, like, with a slang,” Glover told me. “Kinda cool, kinda hard.” Glover suspected that Kali wasn’t black, though he sensed that he probably wasn’t white, either.
Glover was not permitted to interact with the other members of the group, not even the one who served as the “ripping coördinator.” His online handle was RST, and his name was Simon Tai. A second-generation Chinese immigrant, Tai was brought up in Southern California before arriving at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1997. As a freshman with a T1 Internet connection, he’d been in awe of RNS. After hanging around in the chat channel for nearly a year, he was asked to join.
“It takes a while for technological advances to benefit everybody equally.”
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He also applied for a slot as a d.j. at the school’s radio station. For two years, Kali cultivated Tai’s interest in rap music and told him to make connections with the promotional people at various labels. In 2000, Tai, now a senior at Penn, was promoted to music director at the station and given a key to the office, where he had access to the station’s promo disks. Every day, he checked the station’s mail; when something good came in, he raced back to his dorm room to upload it. Beating rival Scene crews was sometimes a matter of seconds.
Tai scored two major leaks that year, Ludacris’s “Back for the First Time” and Outkast’s “Stankonia.” With his Scene credentials established, for the next two years Tai managed RNS’s roster of leakers. Along with Kali, he tracked the major labels’ distribution schedules and directed his sources to keep an eye out for certain albums.
To find the albums, RNS had international contacts at every level, who went by anonymous online handles. According to court testimony and interviews with Scene members, there were the radio d.j.s: BiDi, in the South; DJ Rhino, in the Midwest. There was the British music journalist who went by KSD, whose greatest coup was 50 Cent’s “lost” début, “Power of the Dollar,” scheduled for release in 2000 by Columbia, but cancelled after the rapper was shot. There was DaLive1, a house-music aficionado who lived in New York City, and used his connections inside Viacom to source leaks from Black Entertainment Television and MTV. There were two Italian brothers sharing the handle Incuboy, who claimed to run a music-promotion business and had reliable access to releases from Sony and Bertelsmann. In Japan, albums sometimes launched a week or two ahead of the U.S. release date, often with bonus tracks, and Tai relied on kewl21 and x23 to source them. Finally, there were the Tuesday rippers, like Aflex and Ziggy, who spent their own money to buy music legally the day that it appeared in stores.
The only leaker Tai didn’t manage was Glover—Kali kept his existence a secret, even from the other members of the group. Glover resented the isolation, but being Kali’s private source was worth the trouble. At any given time, global Scene membership amounted to no more than a couple of thousand people. Kali was close to the top. A typical Scene pirate, bribing record-store employees and cracking software, might be granted access to three or four topsites. By 2002, Glover had access to two dozen.
His contacts made him an incomparable movie bootlegger. He built another tower to replace the first, with burners for DVDs instead of CDs. He upgraded his Internet connection from satellite to cable. He downloaded the past few years’ most popular movies from the topsites, then burned a couple of dozen copies of each. Expanding his customer base beyond his co-workers, he started meeting people in the parking lot of a nearby convenience store. Around Cleveland County, Glover became known as “the movie man.” For five dollars, he would sell you a DVD of “Spider-Man” weeks before it was available at Blockbuster, sometimes even while it was still in theatres.
Glover started selling between two hundred and three hundred DVDs a week, frequently making more than a thousand dollars in cash. He built a second PC and another burn tower to keep up with demand. He knew that this was illegal, but he felt certain that he had insulated himself from suspicion. All transactions were hand to hand, no records were kept, and he never deposited his earnings in the bank. He didn’t sell music, DVDs weren’t made at the Universal plant, and he was sure that his customers had never heard of the Scene.
Scene culture drew a distinction between online file-sharing and for-profit bootlegging. The topsites were seen as a morally permissible system of trade. Using them for the physical bootlegging of media, by contrast, was viewed as a serious breach of ethical principles. Worse, it was known to attract the attention of the law. Kali put the word out that anyone suspected of selling material from the topsites would be kicked out of the group. Thus, for most participants membership in RNS was a money-losing proposition. They spent hundreds of dollars a year on compact disks, and thousands on servers and broadband, and got only thrills in return.
Glover was an exception: he knew that he wouldn’t be kicked out of anything. With Universal’s rap acts ascending, Kali needed Glover.
Napster lasted barely two years, in its original incarnation, but at its peak the service claimed more than seventy million registered accounts, with users sharing more than two billion MP3 files a month. Music piracy became to the early two-thousands what drug experimentation had been to the late nineteen-sixties: a generation-wide flouting of both social norms and the existing body of law, with little thought for consequences. In late 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America, the music business’s trade and lobbying group, sued Napster, claiming that the company was facilitating copyright infringement on an unprecedented scale. Napster lost the lawsuit, appealed, and lost again. In July, 2001, facing a court order to stop enabling the trade of copyrighted files, Napster shut down its service.
That legal victory achieved little. Former users of Napster saw Internet file-sharing as an undeniable prerogative, and instead of returning to the record stores they embraced gray-market copycats of Napster, like Kazaa and Limewire. By 2003, global recording-industry revenues had fallen from their millennial peak by more than fifteen per cent. The losing streak continued for the next decade.
The R.I.A.A. tried to reassert the primacy of the industry’s copyrights. But civil suits against the peer-to-peer services took years to move through the appeals courts, and the R.I.A.A.’s policy of suing individual file-sharers was a public-relations disaster. To some at the music labels, Congress seemed disinclined to help. Harvey Geller, Universal’s chief litigator, spent years futilely petitioning legislators for better enforcement of copyright law. “Politicians pander to their constituents,” Geller said. “And there were more constituents stealing music than constituents selling it.”
Leaking was viewed differently. No one was advocating for the smuggler. So album leakers adhered to a rigid code of silence. Scene groups were the source for almost all of the new releases available on the peer-to-peer networks, but most file-sharers didn’t even suspect their existence. Civil litigation against such actors was impossible: unlike Kazaa, RNS did not have a business address to which a subpoena could be sent. Only criminal prosecutions would work.
“Would you care to see our gasoline list, or do you know what you want?”
JULY 31, 2000
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In January, 2003, Glover leaked 50 Cent’s official début, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” to Kali. It became the bestselling U.S. album of the year. He followed that up with albums from Jay Z, G Unit, Mary J. Blige, Big Tymers, and Ludacris, and then began the following year with Kanye West’s début, “The College Dropout.” After a scare, in which Glover worried that a release might be traced to him, the timing of leaks became more and more a point of focus. Glover’s leaks began to hit the Internet about two weeks before the CDs were due in stores, neither so early that the leak could be traced to the plant nor so late that RNS risked being bested by other pirates.
The group’s ascendancy came during a period of heightened scrutiny by law enforcement. In April, 2004, the F.B.I. and foreign law-enforcement agencies conducted coördinated raids in eleven countries, identifying more than a hundred pirates. The R.I.A.A.’s anti-piracy unit was staffed with investigators, who hung around the chat rooms of the Scene and learned its language. They tried to infiltrate the Scene, and tracked the leaked material and its dissemination throughout the Internet. Their research began to point them to one increasingly powerful crew, RNS, and they shared their findings with the F.B.I.
Journalists poked around the fringes of the Scene, too. A December, 2004, article in Rolling Stone, by Bill Werde, introduced RNS to the general public. A photo caption in the piece read, “In a four-day period, one group leaked CDs by U2, Eminem and Destiny’s Child.” The article quoted a source close to Eminem: “The rapper’s camp believes Encore was leaked when it went to the distributors, who deliver albums from the pressing plants to chain stores such as Wal-Mart.”
The information was wrong. The CD hadn’t come from the distributor; it had come from Glover. Three days later, he leaked the U2 album “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.” (Destiny’s Child’s “Destiny Fulfilled” had come from elsewhere.) Facing increased attention, Kali decided to strip the group’s NFO files of potentially identifying information; from now on, they would consist only of the date that the album was ripped and the date that it was due in stores.
Kali ordered the RNS chat channel moved from the public IRC servers to a private computer in Hawaii. He instructed members to communicate only through this channel, which was encrypted, banning methods like AOL Instant Messenger. And he reasserted the prohibition against physical bootlegging. But Glover refused to follow the Scene’s rules. He used I.M. whenever he felt like it, and kept his duffelbag of leaked CDs in his closet. He wasn’t as interested in music anymore, or in earning Brownie points from some Internet group. All he cared about was topsites. The more he could join, the more leaked movies he could get, and the more DVDs he could sell.
In a good week, Glover on his own might sell three hundred disks, and make fifteen hundred dollars in cash. Now he began to branch out. At the beginning of each week, he dropped off four hundred disks at each of three trusted barbershops in Shelby. At the end of the week, he returned to collect his share of the profits—roughly six hundred dollars a week per shop. His best salesman made more selling bootleg movies than he did cutting hair. Seeing the profits Glover was earning, other bootleggers began moving into his territory. But Glover retained a pronounced edge. “I had access to so much stuff,” he said. “No one on the street could beat me.”
Many of Glover’s best customers worked at the plant, and for those he trusted most he devised an even better deal. Rather than paying five dollars per movie, for twenty dollars a month you could buy an unlimited subscription—and you didn’t even need the disks. Glover had set up his own topsite, and once you’d bought an account you could download anything you wanted. There were current DVDs, plus the latest copies of games, music, software, and more. At the time, video on demand was the technology of the future, but, if you knew Glover, it had already arrived. He was running a private Netflix out of his house.
Glover began to make extravagant purchases. He bought game consoles and presents for his friends and his family. He bought a new off-road quad bike, then a second. He bought a used Lincoln Navigator, and upgraded it with xenon headlights, a hood scoop, and an expensive stereo. For years, rappers had favored rims called “spinners”—metal hubcaps on independent bearings, which continued rotating even when the car had stopped. Looking to switch up the game, Glover bought “floaters”: the weighted rims stood still even when the wheels were moving.
In 2005, RNS leaked four of the five best-selling albums in the U.S. The No. 1 and No. 2 slots were occupied by Mariah Carey’s “The Emancipation of Mimi” and 50 Cent’s “The Massacre,” and Glover had leaked them both. RNS leaks quickly made their way onto public file-sharing networks, and, within forty-eight hours of appearing on the topsites, copies of the smuggled CDs could be found on iPods across the globe.
By the end of 2006, Glover had leaked nearly two thousand CDs. He was no longer afraid of getting caught. Universal had sold its compact-disk-manufacturing holdings, which allowed the company to watch the deterioration of physical media from a comfortable distance. Although still on contract to print music for Universal, the new ownership treated the plant like a wasting asset, and stopped investing in maintenance. The musicians signed to Universal complained constantly of album leaks, but the label’s supply chain was as insecure as ever.
Although RNS was still wildly successful, many of its members were tiring of its activities. When the group started, in 1996, most of the participants were teen-agers. Now they were approaching thirty, and the glamour was fading. They outgrew their jobs at college radio stations or found more lucrative fields than music journalism, and lost their access to advance albums.
Listening to hundreds of new releases a year could lead to a kind of cynicism. The musicians all used Auto-Tune to pitch-correct their voices; the songwriters all copied the last big hit; the same producers worked on every track. Glover didn’t connect with rap in the way that he used to. Tony Dockery had been born again, and listened primarily to gospel. Simon Tai still hung around the chat channel, but he hadn’t leaked an album in years. Even Kali seemed a little bored.
“I got a job!”
APRIL 11, 2011
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Glover had been thinking about retiring from the Scene. He started leaking when he was in his mid-twenties. He was now thirty-two. He had worn the same haircut for ten years, and dressed in the same screen-print T-shirts and bluejeans, but his perception of himself was changing. He didn’t remember why he had been so attracted to street bikes, or why he’d felt it necessary to own a handgun. He found his Grim Reaper tattoo impossibly stupid.
Glover’s DVD profits began to decline. Leaks from the Scene were now publicly available within seconds of being posted to the topsites, and even those who were technologically challenged could figure out how to download them. Within a couple of years, Glover’s income from bootlegging dropped to a few hundred dollars a week.
Glover began to make his feelings known to Kali. “We’ve been doing this shit for a long time,” he said in a phone call. “We never got caught. Maybe it’s time to stop.” Surprisingly, Kali agreed. Though the plant’s security was increasingly loose, the risks for leakers were greater. Between foreign law enforcement, the F.B.I., and the R.I.A.A.’s internal anti-piracy squads, there were multiple teams of investigators working to catch them. Kali understood the lengths to which law enforcement was willing to go. Some of the targets of the 2004 raids were his friends, and he had visited them in federal prison.
Then, in January of 2007, one of RNS’s topsites mysteriously vanished. The server, which was hosted in Hungary, began refusing all connections, and the company that owned it didn’t respond. Kali ordered the group shut down. RNS’s final leak, released on January 19, 2007, was Fall Out Boy’s “Infinity on High,” sourced from inside the plant by Glover.
Dozens of former members flooded into the chat channel to pay their respects. Dockery, logging in as St. James, started changing his handle, over and over, in tribute to former members. “Even if we quit now, I’ll think about it always,” Kali wrote. “I don’t know about you guys, but why keep taking a chance.” Soon afterward, the RNS channel was closed forever.
Within months, Glover was once again leaking CDs from the plant, to a guy he knew as RickOne, a leader in a Scene releasing group called OSC. Though this was no longer as profitable for Glover, his desire for free media was undiminished. “To know that I could be playing Madden two months before the stores even had it—to me, that was heaven,” Glover told me.
Kali wasn’t able to give up, either. After RNS was shut down, he had continued sourcing and leaking albums, attributing the leaks to nonsense three-letter acronyms that bewildered even Scene veterans. In the summer of 2007, he contacted Glover and told him that there were two more leaks they had to have: new albums by 50 Cent and Kanye West, both with the same release date. The rappers were competing over whose album would sell more copies, and the feud had made the cover of Rolling Stone. 50 Cent said that if he didn’t win he would retire.
But, as Kali probably knew better than anyone, both artists were distributed and promoted by Universal. What looked like an old-school hip-hop beef was actually a publicity stunt designed to boost sales, and Kali was determined to get involved. RNS had leaked every release the artists had ever put out, and going after 50’s “Curtis” and Kanye’s “Graduation” was a matter of tradition.
The official release date was September 11, 2007, but the albums were first pressed at the plant in mid-August. Glover obtained them through his smuggling network and listened to both. “Graduation” was an ambitious marriage of pop rap and high art, sampling widely from sources as diverse as krautrock and French house music, with cover art by Takashi Murakami. “Curtis” played it safer, favoring hard-thumping club music anchored by hits like “I Get Money” and “Ayo Technology.”
Glover enjoyed both albums, but he was in an unusual position: he had the power to influence the outcome of this feud. If he leaked “Graduation” and held on to “Curtis,” Kanye might sell fewer records. But if he leaked “Curtis” and held on to “Graduation”—well, he might make 50 Cent retire.
Glover decided that he would release one album through Kali and the other through RickOne. He offered RickOne the Kanye West album. On August 30, 2007, “Graduation” hit the topsites of the Scene, with OSC taking credit for the leak. Within hours, an anguished Kali called Glover, who told him that he wasn’t sure how it had happened. He said that he hadn’t seen the album at the plant yet. But, he said, “Curtis” had just arrived. On September 4, 2007, Kali released “Curtis” to the Scene.
Universal officially released the albums on Tuesday, September 11th. Despite the leaks, both sold well. “Curtis” sold almost seven hundred thousand copies in its first week, “Graduation” nearly a million. Kanye won the sales contest, even though Glover had leaked his album first. He’d just run a controlled experiment on the effects of leaking on music sales, an experiment that suggested that, at least in this case, the album that was leaked first actually did better. But Glover was happy with the outcome. “Graduation” had grown on him. He liked Kanye’s album, and felt that he deserved his victory. And 50 didn’t retire after all.
On Wednesday, September 12th, Glover went to work at 7 P.M. He had a double shift lined up, lasting through the night. He finished at 7 A.M. As he was preparing to leave, a co-worker pulled him aside. “There’s someone out there hanging around your truck,” he said.
In the dawn light, Glover saw three men in the parking lot. As he approached his truck, he pulled the key fob out of his pocket. The men stared at him but didn’t move. Then he pressed the remote, the truck chirped, and the men drew their guns and told him to put his hands in the air.
The men were from the Cleveland County sheriff’s office. They informed Glover that the F.B.I. was currently searching his house; they had been sent to retrieve him.
In his front yard, half a dozen F.B.I. agents in bulletproof vests were milling around. Glover’s door had been forced open, and agents were carting away the thousands of dollars’ worth of technology purchases he’d made over the years. He found an F.B.I. special agent named Peter Vu waiting for him inside.
“It makes you look like a tourist.”
NOVEMBER 1, 2010
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Vu, a veteran of the bureau’s computer-crimes division, had spent years searching for the source of the leaks that were crippling the music industry. His efforts had finally led him to this unremarkable ranch house in small-town North Carolina. He introduced himself, then began pressing Glover for information. Vu was particularly interested in Kali, and Glover gave him the scattered details he had picked up over the years. But Vu wanted Kali’s real name, and, although Glover had talked on the phone with Kali hundreds of times, he didn’t know it.
The next day, Kali called Glover. His voice was agitated and nervous.
“It’s me,” Kali said. “Listen, I think the Feds might be onto us.”
Vu had anticipated the possibility of such a call and had instructed Glover to act as if nothing had happened. Glover now had a choice to make. He could play dumb, and further the investigation of Kali. Or he could warn him off.
“You’re too late,” Glover said. “They hit me yesterday. Shut it down.”
“O.K., I got you,” Kali said. Then he said, “I appreciate it,” and hung up.
In the next few months, the F.B.I. made numerous raids, picking up RickOne, of OSC, and several members of RNS. They also found the man they believed to be Kali, the man who had cost the music industry tens of millions of dollars and transformed RNS into the most sophisticated piracy operation in history: Adil R. Cassim, a twenty-nine-year-old Indian-American I.T. worker who smoked weed, listened to rap music, and lived at home in the suburbs of Los Angeles with his mother.
On September 9, 2009, Glover arrived at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, and was indicted on one count of felony conspiracy to commit copyright infringement. At his indictment, Glover saw Adil Cassim for the first time. Cassim was clean-shaven and wore his hair cropped short. He was stocky, with a noticeable paunch, and was dressed in a black suit.
A month later, Glover pleaded guilty to the charge. The decision to plead was a difficult one, but Glover thought that his chances of acquittal were poor. In exchange for sentencing leniency, he agreed to testify against Cassim. The F.B.I. needed the help; the agency had thoroughly searched Cassim’s residence, and a forensic team had inspected his laptop, but they had found no pre-release music. Cassim did not admit to being a member of RNS, though two pieces of physical evidence suggested a connection to the group. One was a burned compact disk taken from his bedroom, containing a copy of Cassim’s résumé, on which, in the “Properties” tab, Microsoft Word had automatically included the name of the document’s author: Kali. The second was Cassim’s mobile phone, which contained Glover’s cell number. The contact’s name was listed only as “D.”
Cassim’s trial began in March, 2010, and lasted for five days. Glover testified, as did several other confessed members of RNS, along with a number of F.B.I. agents and technical experts. In the previous ten years, the federal government had prosecuted hundreds of Scene participants, and had won nearly every case it had brought. But on March 19, 2010, after a short period of deliberation, a jury found Cassim not guilty.
After the trial, Glover began to regret his decision to testify and to plead guilty. He wondered if, with a better legal defense, he, too, might have been acquitted. He’d never been sure exactly what damage leaking music actually caused the musicians, and at times he seemed to regard it as something less than a crime.
“Look at 50 Cent,” he said. “He’s still living in Mike Tyson’s house. Ain’t nobody in the world that can hurt them.” He continued, “It’s a loss, but it’s also a form of advertising.” He paused. “But they probably lost more than they gained.” In the end, Glover served three months in prison. (Tony Dockery also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, and spent three months in prison. Simon Tai was never charged with any wrongdoing.)
In their sentencing guidelines, the attorneys for the Department of Justice wrote, “RNS was the most pervasive and infamous Internet piracy group in history.” In eleven years, RNS leaked more than twenty thousand albums. For much of this time, the group’s best asset was Glover—there was scarcely a person younger than thirty who couldn’t trace music in his or her collection to him.
On the day that Glover’s home was raided, F.B.I. agents confiscated his computers, his duplicating towers, his hard drives, and his PlayStation. They took a few pictures of the albums he’d collected over the years, but they left the duffelbag full of compact disks behind—even as evidence, they were worthless. ♦
Stephen Witt will publish his ﬁrst book, “How Music Got Free,” in June.