Wednesday, April 29, 2009 | On a blazing afternoon a few weeks ago in Rio de Janeiro, Jamie Cooper jumped into the back of a black police SUV, one of a convoy of four vehicles. In a flash of lights, the convoy raced through the city towards the neighborhood of Kaju, home to one of the scores of favelas across the Brazilian city.
Deep in the shanty town, the vehicles screeched to a halt in front of a two-story home. The building was palatial by slum standards. Cooper saw a small swimming pool and noticed the glow of a plasma screen television through the windows. Inside, he could see expensive, well-laid tiles, the sort of tiles you see along the promenade at Ipanema Beach, not in the slums.
A posse of cops, made up of agents from the Rio de Janeiro civil anti-piracy unit and the local police force, jumped from the cars and crowded around the home’s front door. One of the agents kicked in the door and the group streamed in, machine guns bristling in the air like antennae.
Cooper remembers commotion: Shouted voices, children crying. A man and a woman, the home’s inhabitants, were ordered at gunpoint to raise their hands. In one corner of the hot living room, a computer hummed. Stacks of booty lined the walls: Recently burned pirated DVDs of music, software and movies. The cops had found what they were looking for: A stash of counterfeit goods with a street value of more than $20,000.
The man and woman were stuffed in the back of one of the SUVs, then the pirated goods were loaded in the back of a truck and the convoy headed back to police headquarters, leaving the favela before dark, when even an armed convoy could be in danger.
The raid in Rio was one of several anti-piracy operations Cooper and his Chilean cameraman have taken part in over the last few months. Cooper, a professor of law at California Western School of Law, has spent the first few months of 2009 engaged in a battle that is both personal and professional. With funding from the Justice Department, the self-proclaimed “gonzo lawyer” has been traveling Latin America collecting footage, music and documentation to produce an educational and training video on the global problem of intellectual property piracy.
Cooper hopes to highlight the need for reforms in Latin America and elsewhere to help protect intellectual property rights, and views such reforms as a vital phase in the development of a country’s legal system. Protecting intellectual property by fighting piracy fosters creativity, helps ensure safe working conditions and can help choke off a lucrative source of income for organized crime and terrorist groups, he said.
It’s not the first time the baby-faced, 43-year-old former photographer and film producer has embarked on an ambitious project in Latin America. Over the last decade or so, Cooper has helped educate Bolivians about their new constitution, worked on reform of the Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Chilean legal systems, and started a program aimed at turning Bolivian “shoeshine boys” into human rights educators.
That work has earned Cooper a reputation as one of a re-emerging breed of academics: Young, passionate thinkers who are more than willing to forgo the ivory towers of academia for a chance to get their hands dirty with the world’s problems. That might mean packing his suitcase with layers of Kevlar body armor and dodging the occasional bullet, but Cooper’s enthusiasm and zeal have helped him carve out a niche in the local academic world that has won him sincere respect from his peers.
“He has an almost hyper-kinetic energy about him,” said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “He’s not the typical academic focused on writing papers. In fact, he rejects the idea of the typical academic. He has a post-modern mind and he’s always thinking about the way technology, ideas, action and advocacy interconnect.”
Cooper’s latest project strikes at the heart of an issue that he has had first-hand dealings with: Intellectual property piracy, or the global market in the stealing of ideas.
In the mid-1990s, when he was working as a photographer for Marie Claire magazine, several of Cooper’s photographs were reprinted, without his permission, in the Corriere della Serra, an Italian newspaper.
Cooper sued, eventually recovering almost eight times what the newspaper would have paid him for the shots. The incident sparked an interest in intellectual property that has stayed with him and grown as he has learned more about the growing problem of piracy.
“It was very upsetting to have my rights stolen from me,” he said. “But I saw that hell hath no fury like an artist — who also happens to be a lawyer — scorned.”
In recent years, Cooper has made the protection of intellectual property a growing focus of Proyecto Accesso, the nonprofit that he co-founded and directs that promotes judicial reform and legal rights education in Latin America and is headquartered at Cal Western. In 2003, on a research trip to Paraguay to work on another project, he took the opportunity to study intellectual property piracy first-hand.
Cooper wanted to investigate something he had read about in academic papers and trade journals: A claim that, each year, millions of dollars made from the sale of pirated goods finds its way into the hands of organized crime and terrorist organizations.
He also wanted to establish just how much the Paraguayan government and police forces knew about the local black markets. He interviewed the president, the attorney general and several senior judges, lawyers and prosecutors. He also went undercover, accompanying local Paraguayan police forces on raids into the capital, Asuncion, and Ciudad del Este, a sprawling free-trade zone in the tri-border area of Paraguay near the borders with Brazil and Argentina.
The trip introduced Cooper to the vast, interconnected piracy gangs of Latin America. He said he learned on that trip just how insidious the problem of piracy has become in some South American countries.
“It’s been estimated that 70 percent of Paraguay’s GDP is based on counterfeit products — 70 percent!” he said. “The money goes all the way to the top. There’s so much money involved that in Paraguay and Brazil there are pro-piracy congress people who are in the pockets of the counterfeiters.”
Back in San Diego, Cooper made more reconnaissance trips across the border into Mexico to learn more about the piracy trade.
In 2004 and 2005 he visited a shell of a building that served as a factory in Tijuana where concrete statues of Winnie the Pooh were being knocked out by the dozen to be sold at the side of the road at the main border crossing into California. He was shocked by the dangerous work conditions and the health and safety violations he saw. Statues destined for children’s bedrooms in the United States were being slapped with layer upon layer of toxic lead paint in a scene akin to a medieval workshop, within spitting distance of the U.S. border, he said.
“What was fascinating was that 200 years of employee and occupational standards had yet to reach that factory. It was shocking,” Cooper said.
Increasingly, as he learned more about the issue Cooper began to see intellectual property piracy as a double-edged sword cutting into national interests: In addition to the billions of dollars lost by American companies through the sale of pirated goods from Versace to Viagra, the profits from those goods were often also indirectly harming the United States because they went to fund criminal and terrorist groups.
Cooper summarized his academic research and the findings from his fieldwork in a 2005 article for the California Western International Law Journal titled “Piracy 101.”
“Mounting evidence confirms that the sale of counterfeit goods has become terrorists’ most important income-generating activity,” he wrote. One of the globe’s hotspots for generating such income was the Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, he wrote, which by 2005 had become “a mecca for terror and crime organizations.”
This year, the RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank, published “Film Piracy, Organized Crime and Terrorism,” a book that named the tri-border area as “the most important financing center for Islamic terrorism outside the Middle East, channeling $20 million annually to Hezbollah.”
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 opened the door to increased funding from the federal government for tackling piracy, Cooper said. In January, after many years of trying, Cooper finally was commissioned by the Justice Department to document the dangers that piracy poses to legitimate businesses and public health and safety throughout the Americas.
He and his team will be spending much of 2009 researching, filming and editing an educational and training film on intellectual property rights that will eventually be made available in embassies and U.S. government buildings around the world. The film will also appear in at least one film festival, and will be sent to law enforcement agencies all over the world.
The trip to the tri-border area was the third such trip Cooper has taken to Latin America in recent months to continue his research. Over three weeks, he went on two raids that netted a total of 24,000 counterfeit DVDs, games, software and CDs, including copies of popular movies like “Slumdog Millionaire” and also top Argentine and Brazilian films.
The raids also uncovered pirated copies of popular books like the Harry Potter series. Because the pirates generally sell DVDs and CDs for $1 each, instead of the average $15 legitimate price tag, Cooper estimates that the street value of the goods, roughly $24,000, should be multiplied by 15, to $360,000. That is a more accurate estimate of the real value lost to the industries that manufacture and distribute legitimate products, he said.
Cooper and his cameraman also filmed in the street markets of Sao Paolo, Brazil, collecting footage of pirated goods laid out on tables on the city streets. Thugs tried to steal their camera a couple of times, but the four armed undercover policemen who milled around them at all times proved adequate protection.
Cooper and his team have also been collecting songs about piracy to form a soundtrack to the film. Musicians from Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Mexico and Chile have donated songs that they wrote and performed specifically for Cooper’s project. In the mix will be: Paraguayan polka; hip-hop and ska from Bolivia; drum and bass from Chile; and rock from Brazil.
Closer to home, Andy Summers of the band The Police, who lives in Santa Monica, is also donating a song.
The amount of support he has received from local musicians in Latin America shows that his work is not just important for protecting American interests, Cooper said.
Protecting intellectual property is what Cooper calls a “second generation reform” that comes after a country has established a functioning legal system and made other developmental gains. With that reform comes protection for local inventors, musicians, writers, scientists and other artists, he said.
“It rewards innovation,” he said. “It’s not just Madonna and Bill Gates who are getting ripped off. They have marketplaces outside of Latin America, like the U.S., where intellectual property rights are protected and they can make a living. Paraguayan folkloric musicians, Bolivian musicians, don’t have a marketplace outside their own respective countries or cities. If a very popular song is being pirated, they don’t have a way to make a living.”
Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UCSD, said Cooper is helping to keep alive a spirit of “dust-on-the-boots” fieldwork that has gradually been fading from American campuses.
Academics studying social sciences and the law in the U.S. have become increasingly focused on interpreting existing data, rather than digging into the subjects they are studying themselves, Cornelius said.
“There’s only so much evidence you can get from reading other people’s work,” Cornelius said. “Some issues have simply not been studied vigorously by anybody and you’ve got to go out and get your own data.”
Cooper’s film will be debuting at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival in late September. He leaves for Chile to work on a separate project and to carry out more research on May 20.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified the name of Wayne Cornelius’ center. We regret the error.