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Most days, it isn’t hard for a scruffy music nut like Tim Shea to find a heavenly moment or two surrounded by the tens of thousands of albums at Joe’s Record Paradise.

Friday, Oct. 22, however, wasn’t one of those days: The 19-year-old employee of Joe’s, a used-record store in a hardly arcadian strip-mall storefront in north Rockville, was organizing newly arrived CDs when about a half-dozen cops burst into the store.

“We were kinda like, the hell’s this?” says Shea. The cops, dressed in boots and bulletproof vests, demanded the store’s keys and sternly asked customers to leave.

“We really had no idea [what was going on]. It made no sense,” says Johnson Lee, another employee. “They said, ‘We’re looking for illegal recordings….Point us to your live imports or bootlegs or we’ll tear this place apart. We have authority to seize everything here.’”

Adding to the confusion was the raiders’ affiliation: They weren’t feds. They weren’t even Montgomery County’s finest. They were vice cops from Baltimore.

Four hours later, the cops were gone, along with 115 CDs mostly by ’60s and ’70s rock acts, a computer, an address book, and $841 authorities said were associated with bootleg sales. Police simultaneously raided Joe’s Record Paradise’s second location, in northeast Baltimore, seizing 66 recordings and more than $1,300.

The seized records weren’t copies of the latest Good Charlotte or Kanye West albums. Those would be pirated or counterfeit CDs—illegal copies of officially released titles—none of which Joe’s carried. The seized CDs were bootlegs, amateur recordings of unreleased radio or live performances, which are often of borderline sound quality.

Joe Lee, who founded his stores in 1974, remembers an era where unscrupulous record-store owners would set up a “back room” to peddle bootlegs from the top bands of the day. “Those days have been over a long time,” Lee says. The bootlegs at Joe’s come in with record and CD collections; depending on their rarity, Lee says, he sometimes pays a premium for them.

Today, Internet trading has rendered the once-thriving tape trade nearly obsolete. Lee’s inventory reflects that: Of upward of 150,000 items per store, authorities seized fewer than 200 bootlegs altogether. Of those, Lee says most were of dinosaur-rock acts—the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan—or of more contemporary jam bands that encourage live taping. “Half of the recordings sounded terrible. It’s for collectors who want every little thing,” he says.

According to the warrant that police presented at the raids, an investigator from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) initially discovered bootlegs at the store’s Baltimore location and approached that city’s police, who bought several to obtain the warrant. After learning about the Rockville location from the Joe’s Web site, an undercover Baltimore cop bought live recordings of Led Zeppelin and Phish concerts from the Rockville store. The raids soon followed.

Until the mid-’90s, the RIAA regularly issued press releases touting mass bootleg seizures; today, such events are rarely mentioned, supplanted by the organization’s high-profile battles against Internet pirates and counterfeiters. The numbers bear out the decrease: Last year, authorities seized nearly 200,000 fewer bootlegs than in 2002—a decline of more than 80 percent—while seizing hundreds of thousands more counterfeits, according to RIAA figures.

Still, in recent years, the law has gotten tougher on bootleggers as legislators have mandated ever-expanding terms of copyright protection. The law once protected live recordings for a maximum of 28 years; today, works are protected 70 years after an artist’s death.

The legal foundation for such extended protections, however, may be crumbling: In late September, a federal judge in New York threw out charges against a record-store owner dealing bootlegs similar to the ones Joe’s carried, citing unlawful regulations that granted “seemingly perpetual protection” to musical recordings. The federal ruling does nothing to help Lee, whose stores were raided under Maryland state law.

Brad Buckles, the RIAA’s executive vice president for anti-piracy, says though bootleg raids have gotten less media attention in the face of the “sexier” Internet prosecutions, they are still a problem. Buckles says the problem lies mainly with dealers “trying to replace what’s real hot, what’s coming out.” He declined to comment on the specifics of Lee’s case.

Lee says the raid is particularly ironic given that he’s dealt in bootlegs not just with private collectors, but also with the government—the Library of Congress, in particular. Last year, library officials approached Lee about trading some unused materials. “[They said], ‘We’re looking for bootlegs—we need live recordings,’” Lee says. It all goes, in Lee’s view, to the ubiquitousness, the banality of the bootleg; more than once, Lee claims bootlegs are “no big deal.”

Big deal or not, Buckles still thinks bootleg prosecutions are important: “It may not be a huge economic impact to one of the major labels, but if you’re the band…These people are stealing….I don’t want to give the impression this is innocent conduct.”

Two weeks after the raid, many remain in the store, by Lee’s own admission. “My stores will never be purged of bootlegs,” Lee says, noting that they come in so many various forms it can be hard to distinguish between them and legitimate recordings. “People aren’t threatened by bootlegs,” he says.

His business, however, is. Another area raid target, Baltimore’s Sound Garden, was fined $15,000 after a similar raid in 1998. The RIAA hasn’t yet approached Lee about a possible settlement; if or when it does, he doesn’t plan to hire a lawyer. He’s having second thoughts on re-signing his lease in Rockville. A hefty fine, Lee says, may force him to cancel his employees’ health insurance, which he refuses to do. “If I have to spend $15,000 to settle, $20 grand for a lawyer”—Lee stops and waves. “Sayonaro. I’ve put in my 30 years.”

“I just don’t feel I’ve hurt the Beatles or Led Zeppelin,” he says. “Maybe I’m one of those sociopath types.”CP