Why is the Department of Homeland Security shutting down popular rap sites? An official explains why they're targeting bloggers

Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security seized over 80 websites for alleged copyright and trademark violations. Caught up along with many sites alleged to be selling counterfeit clothing and other products were five entertainment websites, including the popular hip-hop blogs OnSmash.com and dajaz1.com. All that remains on their homepages is a stern notice from the government threatening steep fines and prison time under federal statutes. Why were these sites shut down by Homeland Security? We spoke with Erik Barnett, assistant deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to find out.

“One of our responsibilities [at Homeland Security] is the protection of copyright and trademarks,” he says. “We’ve been doing this frankly for about 40 years at least, when we were the U.S. Customs Service. Of course, back then, it was seizing container loads of mostly luxury goods that were coming into the United States, mostly from China. Like a lot of crime over the last 10 to 15 years, this has now transitioned from flea markets and small vendors to the Internet.”

That analogy might perhaps apply to alleged counterfeiters like burberryoutletshop.com or nfljerseysupply.com, but clearly OnSmash and dajaz1 were not selling fake luxury goods. These weren’t knock-off handbag warehouses — they were prominent parts of a cultural scene. In many cases, the sites have said that record labels gave them tracks to post for promotional purposes. And per TechDirt, no less a recording artist than Kanye West linked approvingly to OnSmash just weeks ago.

But Barnett, while declining to discuss specific sites, maintains that his office has reason to believe copyright laws were broken. “In general, what we can say is, there are specific complaints from rights holders that these sites were infringing on copyrights,” he says. “Really, what we’re talking about is the crime of theft… They could have had, as you say, maybe some labels that gave some work of artists. But in the larger picture, they had hundreds if not thousands of songs, movies, software titles available that the true copyright holder, therefore the victim, was not receiving any payment for.”

Homeland Security made its move after an undercover investigation that lasted about 90 days. The websites’ owners were given no advance notice that they were at risk. “I mean, when we’re conducting criminal investigations, we don’t notify criminals that you need to abate your criminal conduct or there’s going to be an enforcement action against you,” says Barnett. He is not particularly sympathetic to bloggers who might feel that the shutdowns have damaged their livelihoods without due process. “I understand that this is a question that gets raised,” he says. “But from a law enforcement agency standpoint, there’s criminal activity. The process that’s set up to address that is a law enforcement agency investigates, which is what Homeland Security Investigations does. The Justice Department determines if the elements of the criminal statute have been met. And then a judge determines if the enforcement action that’s proposed — in this case, a seizure warrant — is appropriate. So that’s the process.”

Nonetheless, Homeland Security’s actions already have many in the tech community up in arms. The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns that “these seizures may be just a short preview of the kind of overreaching enforcement we’ll see if the Congress passes the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA),” a major new piece of legislation that was just placed on the Senate’s calendar.

In the meantime, suspects convicted under the current investigation could face penalties between five and 10 years in prison. Bloggers have the option of filing court petitions to get their sites back, but Homeland Security confirms that none have done so yet. “It is not in any way prohibited for the property owner to say, ‘Wait a second, you’re wrong,'” says Barnett. “That’s something that they could start yesterday, really, if they want to.”

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

Comments (121 total) Add your comment
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  • H. Marcuse

    So the DHS has become a corporate tool. Gee, never saw this coming.

    • Kyle

      Corporate tool??? You’re an idiot. This is a clear infringement on your personal rights.

      • Mike

        You’re the idiot, Kyle. DHS has become a corporate tool, and in doing so of course it’s infringing on your personal rights. Those two are not mutually exclusive.

      • Sherm

        I believe Kyle was being sarcastic.

  • Bradley

    you this sh!t is, f**kin ridiculous!

    • gabriel

      is this a kanye reference?

  • Mike

    Theft is theft, period.

    • Lisa Simpson

      And copyright infringement is theft, plain and simple. What’s worse, someone stealing your television set or someone stealing a creative work that you worked hard on for weeks, months, or even years?

      • Tim

        And censorship is censorship. I’m sure that China will give us a great deal on some of their Great Firewall software.

      • Lisa Simpson

        This has nothing to do with censorship. It has to do with theft of intellectual and creative property.

      • Bob Smith

        This isn’t theft. Period. Nothing was physically taken from anyone. If you have your ipod stolen, you no longer have access to it. Someone is preventing your use of your personal property. Copyright infringement is NOT THEFT. Nothing is taken. The copyright owner still has the intellectual property. No if the copyright owner wants to try to prove “damages” that’s fine. File suit, get an injunction and go before a judge or jury to argue your case. The copyright laws in this country are a joke. Our founding fathers didn’t mean for copyright to be extended in perpetuity. Did you know copyrights were originally 28 years? This was meant to allow intellectual property to flow into the public domain where others could build upon it. Now it’s 70 years after the death of the author or 120 years for corporate copyrights. Ridiculous!

      • Jim

        copyright infringement IS copyright infringement, but the group that is supposed to be protecting out safety from terrorists should not be going after music pirates. This is a joke on the American taxpayer.

      • Lisa Simpson

        @Bob Smith – Theft does not have to involve the stealing of physical property. Copyright infringement is stealing. It is taking someone’s labor and not paying them for it. How would you like it if your boss decided not to pay you for all the work you did this year? You may disagree with the length of current copyrights, but to deny someone pay for their work is wrong and illegal.

        As for the separate issue of whether or not the Deptartment of Homeland Security should be in charge of doing this, I won’t disagree there. I disliked the idea of this department from its inception, but Customs was folded into it, and this is part of their responsibility.

      • dave c

        Theft may be theft, but what happened to due process? The last I heard, the government wasn’t the enforcement arm for the record labels. How can they sieze sites without winning in court?

      • blierso

        Bob Smith is right. The whole copyright law in this country is a joke, nothing more than a secured moneymaking tool for the music industry in the name of the author. Inventors work a lot harder helping society so we can live longer and better our lives. Inventions only have 20 years protection, I guess because there is no lobbying force for them like the music industry’s. Why is a copyright law provides protection from 50-100 years after the author dies? It’s a shame that taxpayers money being used by DHS to enforce this unjust law and do nothing for the inventors.

      • Lisa Simpson

        Disney is the main force behind the continuing extensions of the copyright law, not the music industry. There’s not much money in old music. And since these were rap blogs, I’m sure that most of these songs would have been protected under the original copyright law. I doubt they were posting Perry Como music.

      • sd

        Actually, the point you are missing is that a lot of these blogs while posting some mainstream artists music, also are the main source that people have for hearing new and upcoming artists. Bands/ Rappers you would never hear on the radio or on TV because they don’t have that kind of exposure (and well in my opinion I would say because they don’t suck as I don’t really care for mainstream music). But regardless, if you’ve ever visited a music blog, you’d know that many of them willingly take down any song that someone makes a copyright claim to them against. They don’t post full albums usually posting just a song and recommending whether or not you should purchase the whole album. And are an important vehicle for artists who don’t fit the typical label billing or don’t have the connections.

      • Sum Yung Gai

        Actually, copyright infringement is *not* theft. Yes, that’s correct. The Supreme Court ruled on that in US vs. Dowling in 1985. A violation of law? Yep. But theft? Nope.

    • Mikee

      You people honestly are idiots. Artists SEND their songs to most of these blogs, and some of them don’t even post songs. The government is trying to shut down the rap industry.

  • RoeLuv

    Dear DHS, please put your efforts into those who wish to bomb us. Not fake Gucci bags & Kanye West CD’s

    • Point

      As they explained in the (what are those words up there? Oh yeah, the artcile), this IS part of their job.

      • RoeLuv

        Well then the departments should be split up. Are you comfortable with them being preoccupied with this nonsense?

      • Sportsjunkie

        Homeland Security is split up comprised of dozens of departments. TSA, Customs and Border Protection, ICE, Coast Guard, Secret Service just to name a few. Its out of control in its size.

    • B

      It’s good that Homeland Security can bust copyright thieves and TSA can look at our penises… yet no one still can find Osama Bin Laden.

      • Anna MossitY

        Ha ha ha ha ha… This is funny, but you just KNOW that his bosses at the C.I.A. have set him up with a new identity, fat cash, and extensive plastic surgery… If he were to be caught, he might say too much about the coziness between his family and The Bush’s!

      • Deebo

        Anna…thnak you….At least some people know the truth…AlCIAda is US run wake up people

    • LadyJNewYork

      ^5 to your comment!!!!

  • Sam

    due process? Day in court? You are all blind sheep going to slaughter.

    • Jerry Krause

      You, of course, are far more enlightened than the rest of us–probably quite superior to everyone on the internet. At least you are not being a complete hypocrite and trying to justify your own thievery by parroting something you read on the internet like Bob Smith and others on this page.

  • D

    They’ll just set up “shop” somewhere else on the internet, and DHS will have to do this all over again. Any for anyone who thinks it’s not fair – how’s about I come over and take the contents of your house and garage and have myself a big ol’ yard sale? Read this real slow: when you profit from the violation of trademarks and copyright protection, that’s called steeeeeeealing.

    • R

      Courts have distinguished between copyright infringement and theft, holding, for instance, in the United States Supreme Court case Dowling v. United States (1985) that bootleged records did not constitute stolen property and that “…interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The Copyright Act even employs a separate term of art to define one who misappropriates a copyright… ‘an infringer of the copyright.'” In the case of copyright infringement the province guaranteed to the copyright owner by copyright law is invaded, i.e. exclusive rights, but no control, physical or otherwise, is taken over the copyright, nor is the copyright owner wholly deprived of using the copyrighted work or exercising the exclusive rights owned. so D read this real slow or maybe twice so you understand it “Copyright infringement is noooooot theft”

      • Jerry

        Your right. It’s simply another way to get money from someone else’s labors without making any contributions to society yourself. Leeches are as admirable as snake oil salesmen.

      • Lisa Simpson

        Parsing legalese will make your head explode. As you stated, there is a difference between stealing physical property and stealing the fruits of someone’s labors without due compensation. That is why all these legal definitions have come into play. But it is still stealing, and it is still wrong.

      • D

        “Parsing legalese” indeed, Lisa… How EXQUISITELY appropriate that R, who is making a point regarding copyright/trademark law, chose to lift his/her post – in its entirety – from Wikipedia. LOL It’s neither here nor there, in light of R’s formidable ignorance on the topic, but that particular case has absolutely nothing to do with this article. At issue in Dowling v. U.S. was the application of a federal statute in regards to “theft” versus “infringement” (two completely different legal concepts). The appeals court ruled that, under the narrow definition of that one statute, “theft” had not occurred, and that to find otherwise would be inviting the misuse of the statute by extending it to other areas of enforcement it was never designed to cover. Chapter 5 of U.S. Copyright Law, Subsection 12 refers specifically to copyright infringement, and states very clearly that copyright infringement is a criminal offense. The action the DHS took – cease and desist injunctions issued by a judge – were correct.

      • D

        FYI R, I’m founding partner in a firm specializing in venture technology and entrepreneurial law, and I’ve been doing this for 12 years. You’re outmatched, buddy.

  • jon

    I thought Homeland Security was to protect us from people bombing us. Wow this is crazy. I guess our country safety is not all that important because we gotta see who is stealing Kanye West CD LOL

  • Jill from TX

    Since I live about 3 hours from the border, I’d kinda like to see Homeland Security…SECURING OUR HOMELAND!!!!! It’ just a matter of time before the violence starts bleeding across.

    • Mimi

      You live 3 hours from the border in Texas, I presume and you think you are in a threatened area …. puleeze, pull the other leg. You have a greater threat of domestic (aka US-born extremists like McVeigh and Koresh) in Texas three hours from the border than you do from foreign nationals.

      • B

        Whoa, someone’s never heard of the Mexican drug war.

      • Anna MossitY

        If you’re not involved in drugs yourself, the odds that this would ever affect you are infinitestimably small… Is there something you want to tell us??!

      • Texan

        5 US Citizens have died on the US border in the past 3 weeks from violence caused by the drug war SPILLING over into Texas. Perhaps it would do you good to look into it, instead of believing what the MSM wants you to believe.

  • Dave-O

    Art is priceless and worthless at the same time…

  • Ridiculous. Yes, copyright laws are important, but the department of homeland security has more important things to do than focus on two blogs out of hundreds of thousands on the internet. Do they think that shutting two down will stop piracy? Those two are down, but I guarantee 20-200 will be up in their place. Fighting piracy is a serious case of swimming upstream. I don’t feel bad for the artists, only because record sales don’t drive the record industry. Artists make way more money through touring, so all the entitled celebrities can go cry into their piles of money for all I care. I buy my music, do not own an iPod (nor will I ever), but it’s hard to feel bad for these people when they flaunt their money/status.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, because every single artist out there is making millions. Idiot.

  • MattGordonMD

    A decade and a billion dollars later: two rap blogs. Really?! *rolls eyes*

    • anonymous

      they seized over 80 sites, read the article. 80 sites! the problem is that there is no due process with HomeLand Security. they can throw you in jail with NO TRIAL or representation and there is NOTHING you can do about it NOTHING.

  • paul

    the nazis have landed

    • captain obvious

      and there checking your ipod

  • Rick

    You have got to be joking. Don’t they have anything better to do than bust small time hip hop blog sites.

  • revcor

    Who am I stealing from exactly? Big record companies with out of date business models? Do people really understand that on a 15 buck CD, the artist gets roughly $1 per sale, at the most. Plus the fact that they have to pay the record company back for all the promo/cd costs. The average band makes little to no money off the sale of their music through record companies.

    So where do they make it? From people going to their shows and buying thier merch. Why would people go to their shows? Because they heard of them on the internet. The old music business is dead, it has been since Napster. Suing grandma and shutting down sites won’t change that. These people need to wake up and embrace the new tech, not put thier head in the sand

    • Saganist

      The busness models are old and stilted towards big copyright owners. Fair Trade Music is long overdue. Indie artists are making their own 21st century model. The big labels dangle ‘fame’ and ‘mass appeal’ as bait for artists. That crap has about run out of power. Good for the arts!

  • lori denise

    Oh please. Stop being IDIOTS. Homeland security doing this is ok with u? Forget the theft is theft crap. If you want to see theft look at the goverment. This is a way to get their foot in the door. They make it seem like they are doing something for a reason that most sheep will buy, but in the long run it has only opened up the door to more rules, more rights taken away. Look at what this country is becoming! Wake it up!

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