Selling to survive on Madrid's streets

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.

Ramo said a mantero makes between 15 and 20 euros a day. He said they acquire CDs and DVDs at 1 euro a piece and sell them for 2.5 euros.

“We don’t like working in top manta. We’re carpenters, mechanics, construction workers, but when people want to hire us, they can’t, because we don’t have papers. We can’t just stay here with our arms folded,” he said. He and many of his colleagues decided to organize in the Association of Undocumented People, whose manifesto asks, “Is it so bad to sell CDs in the street in order to survive? Is it really worth sending someone to jail?”

The Spanish music and film sectors have been hurting of late. The recording industry, worth 600 million euros in 2001, dropped to 225 million euros in 2008, according to Promusicae, an association of music producers. FAP, a federation for film intellectual property, says only 6 percent of films in Spanish homes are legal.

The sectors blame their losses on the Internet for illegal downloads, which boomed after 2005 when downloading software became widespread. This has had disastrous consequences, said Antonio Rojas, spokesman for SGAE, an organization defending royalty rights for artists. He said companies are shutting down, jobs are being destroyed and tax fraud is being committed as a result. The number of illegal downloads grows exponentially every year: 132 million movies in 2006, 350 million in 2008; 500 million songs in 2006, 2.5 billion in 2008, according to data provided by FAP and SGAE.

FAP’s president, Jose Manuel Tourne, estimates top manta costs the film industry about 138 million euros a year. Less than 7 percent of illegal movies are sold on top manta — the rest are illegal downloads. The same imbalance occurs with music, with top manta illegal music sales accounting for a “minimal” 4 percent, SGAE said.

Antonio Guisasola, Promusicae president, thinks the campaign’s message is wrong. If it is a matter of supporting immigrants who cannot work, he said, jobs are the problem that needs solving. “Campaign supporters say manteros do not have any other way to make a living because they’re illegal. Then, what’s the next step? Lessening the sentence for stealing if one is illegal because he has no other way to make it?” he asked.

Romo, for his part, said, “We’re not delinquents, we don’t want to harm anybody. We prefer top manta selling to stealing."

Some Spanish artists support the current law. But there are others, like musician Joaquin Sabina and film director Javier Corcuera, who have signed a manifesto defending the protection of intellectual property rights with criminal punishments in the most serious cases but also backing the campaign, in view of the “scant gravity” of the top manta and “the social and personal circumstances” of the manteros.

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