This latest wrinkle in the multimillion-dollar bootlegging industry takes advantage of a federal law requiring arenas to offer patrons use of an assistive listening device (ALD). “We know through criminal investigations and informants that this is a common practice,” said Frank Creighton, senior vice president of anti-piracy at the Recording Industry Association of America.

Bootleggers can simply request an ALD headset, which provides a high-quality feed of a live show via a low-level FM frequency broadcast inside a facility. The music pirates then steal the headset feed, giving them concert performances devoid of the usual bootleg problems such as random crowd noise or distortion, Creighton said. “The quality is much higher than a typical bootleg,” Creighton continued. “No question about it.”

Bootleggers are using the devices provided for the hearing-impaired to record near-pristine versions of concerts by veterans like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan plus a plethora of new acts.

“Every major act that’s in the Billboard Top 100 is getting bootlegged in some manner,” Creighton says.

Advocates for the hearing impaired were appalled by the new pirating technique.

“Oh my goodness! What concerns me is if this becomes so prevalent that the service is dropped,” said Mercy Coogan of Gallaudet University, the Washington, D.C.-based college for deaf and hard of hearing students.

“That could prohibit a whole lot of hard of hearing people from this very important mode of access.”

Arenas are required to provide the ALDs under the federal Americans with Disability Act, which marked its 10th anniversary August 2.

Typical of the ALD bootlegs is an August 22, 1999, Springsteen concert from Boston’s Fleet Center one of the most popular illegal recordings of the Boss’ E Street Band reunion tour, according to Internet sites.

The three-CD collection is advertised as “soundboard quality,” with various mentions that it was done via an ALD.

“If there (is) anybody who don’t own a single boot, buy this,” raved one bootleg buyer at a Springsteen site. “The sound is so good you’ll think it’s an official release!!!”

Another enthusiastic reviewer offered this praise: “The instrument separation is outstanding and well-mixed, making this set a joy to listen to.”

The ALD rip-offs were news to officials at several major concert venues from coast to coast, including the new Staples Center in Los Angeles and the First Union Center in Philadelphia.

“We have the devices, but I haven’t heard of this,” said Ike Williams of the First United Center in Philadelphia.

Creighton says that arena policing is generally left up to bands and their road crews; many groups, from the Allman Brothers to the Dave Matthews Band, have encouraged their fans to tape and trade live performances.

The Recording Industry Association of America only becomes involved once the illegal material is manufactured and distributed, according to Creighton. The association says that hundreds of millions of dollars are lost annually through the various forms of bootlegging, and this new technique should add to that total.

“They’re plugging into soundboard feeds – high quality,” Creighton says. “Those types of recordings garner the largest bidders in the bootlegging underground.”