Connect to share and comment

Selling to survive on Madrid's streets

Campaign calls for end to prison sentences for street vendors selling pirated music and movies.

A demonstrator attends a rally in support of illegal street vendors, known colloquially in Spain as top mantas (top blankets) in Madrid, Feb. 12, 2009. The signs read "+ papers, - blankets" and "If I don't sell I don't eat." (Andrea Comas/Reuters)

MADRID — Brightly patterned sheets cover the sidewalk, neatly exhibiting pirated CDs and DVDs. But seconds later all traces are gone — the African peddlers of the wares had spotted a policeman approaching, grabbed their displays and sprinted off down the busy commercial street in downtown Madrid.

“Some of us have been working at this for a long time, and we know the officers’ faces, even if they’re in civilian clothes,” said Ramo, a 20-year-old Senegalese who did not want to give his last name. If caught, the manteros — literally "blanketers" in reference to the sheets they spread their goods on — can be sent to prison.

Some lawyers, judges, prosecutors and artists say that is excessive. They are behind a campaign calling on Spanish lawmakers to pardon the several dozen manteros in Spanish prisons and to decriminalize "top manta" — the practice of selling pirated goods, and which literally means "top blanket."

The dim economic prospects of the undocumented immigrants have aided calls for reform, which are coming even from some of the artists whose work is being sold. Street vending accounts for a small percentage of the market for illegal movies and music — Internet downloads are responsible for a large majority.

“Being in prison means much more suffering than people can imagine," said Julian Rios, a law professor at Comillas University and one of the promoters of the initiative. "It’s indecent to defend intellectual property by abusing the most violent legal mechanism in society.”

Judge Santiago Torres said the right to intellectual property must be protected, but a distinction should be made between those who profit from piracy and the street vendors, who are selling “to survive.”

Most manteros are undocumented immigrants who cannot work legally in Spain. Many are young men from Senegal, with some coming from farther, including from Mali and the Ivory Coast. Most risked their lives to get to Spain, traveling on "pateras," or flimsy boats.

The campaign was initiated by Ferrocarril Clandestino, a network made up of Spaniards and immigrants. “We wanted to create a debate in society about whether prison is the right price for royalty rights,” said spokeswoman Alcira Padin.

The purpose of the campaign is not to legalize street vending of pirated music and films but to lessen the penalties established by law. Supporters argue there are other punishments, such as confiscation of the material, a fine or community service, that would be more proportional to the activity and the socioeconomic situation of the vendors.

They point out that non-violent theft, when the amount is less than 400 euros (about $520), is not punishable by jail time in Spain, and yet manteros, who make far less in a day’s work, risk a two-year prison term.