Clear Sailing Ahead for Russia's MP3 Fans

While a legal battle over control of the music industry rages on in the United States, Russian fans of downloading music can sleep soundly because the Russian Internet, or RuNet, is unlikely to become the next battleground for the music industry.

Last week brought a major blow to song-swapping enthusiasts worldwide when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Napster, a controversial Internet music-trading service, must be held accountable for copyright infringement against music labels.

The decision will force Napster to shut down unless it stops its users from illegally exchanging copyrighted songs, but its Russian orphans have plenty of other portals to choose from.

A search in Russian search engine Rambler for MP3, one of the most common standards for encoding music files, yields more than 200 hits.

"I mostly download from local sites because it speeds up the process," said Anton Ivanov, a designer for a Western advertising agency.

Napsters demise will have no effect on his MP3 downloading habits, added Ivanov, who captures new music from the Internet at least once a week.

Downloading music is no different from downloading any other type of file. All you need is a computer, a modem and, preferably, a speedy Internet connection. MP3 files, the most common format for downloading music, will flow to the hard drive, allowing a user to listen to the tunes directly from the computer or burn them to a CD.

"MP3 files cause serious damage to the music industry, but the Internet is so new many of us dont know how to approach it," said Bella Berlyandt, chairwoman of the Russian Phonographic Association, which represents major domestic and foreign record companies operating in Russia.

Even before Napsters memberships hit the quarter-billion mark, online music-swapping sites were sending shivers down music executives spines because they give Internet users a way to download millions of MP3 music files free of charge, threatening to cut into record labels profits.

Universal, the worlds sixth-largest record label, has been on the Russian market for eight years and knows about such damage firsthand.

Last year, the company one of the warriors in the legal battle against Napster spent major marketing dollars preparing a world release of Danish pop quartet Aquas new album only to find it posted in full on a Russian web site just two weeks before the big date.

"RuNet is a nightmare it is full of illegal MP3 files," said a spokesman for Universal. "But since pirated material accounts for 60 percent to 90 percent of the music market in Russia, we cannot focus on counting our losses from the Internet."

At the heart of the issue, the spokesman said, is not the lack of applicable laws but rather the sloppy law enforcement when it comes to online violations.

The law of authors rights and joint rights, passed in 1995, prohibits dispensing copyrighted material such as music online without paying royalties to the authors.

Under the law, a plaintiff could ask the court for compensation of up to 50,000 times the official minimum wage of 200 rubles ($7) for each instance of abuse.

But according to Viktor Naumov, a law professor at St. Petersburg State University and an author of web site, most victims of online copyright pillage do not sue because cases involving the Internet prove time-consuming and extremely difficult to win in the Russian court system.

"The only reason to go to court is to satisfy your own personal ambitions," he said.

To date, Russia has had only 15 legal cases that raise copyright issues on the World Wide Web and only one related to the exchanging of online music.

The case involves the lonely pioneer of Russias legal music-sharing industry, which last year accused its counterpart of stealing part of its music data base and offering it on its own portal.

While the case is still making its way through the tangled web of the Russian legal system, has become a poster child for respecting musicians rights in the digital age. The portal is among less than half a dozen sites that pride themselves on offering legal MP3 files and sharing the profits made from their operations with music creators.

However, musicians themselves may not be ready for the change. Unlike Metallica, an American heavy-metal band that lashed out at Napster and took it to court for copyright infringement, many Russian bands have remained on the sidelines when it comes to online music swapping.

"I dont see any serious danger, and I think musicians can reap benefits from increased popularity if their music is downloaded online," said Sergei Smolin, manager of veteran pop-rock band Kvartal.

"If someone discovers a cool jazz band via the Internet, I consider it a big plus for the musicians."

Sasha Ivanov, the lead of punk-rock group Naive, agreed.

"We support the idea of downloading MP3 files because it promotes music, which is the main reason why we wanted to become musicians in the first place," said Ivanov, whose group electrified nearly 2,000 fans last week at a Valentines Day concert.

But some are already anticipating the moment when MP3 files on RuNet could mean big profits for content creators.

Among them is the Russian Copyright Society, an intellectual property rights watchdog that unites more than 133,000 Russian and foreign authors and musicians.

Last year, it addressed web-based copyright issues by forming the Russian Society for Multimedia and Digital Networks, or ROMS, which markets itself as a defender of copyrights on the Russian Internet.

"In five years, everything, including television and radio, will be online, so we need to find solutions to these issues now," said Sergei Zyatitsky, director of ROMS.

ROMS is attempting to collect royalty payments for musicians from web sites that offer copyrighted material. But considering that low fees 1 kopek per downloaded file the Internet must become a truly mass phenomenon before music creators can collect material revenues with ROMSs help.

While the number of computer users doubled last year to about 3 million, this is still less than 2 percent of the population.

Zyatitsky acknowledges the Russian Internet is still in its infancy.

"I dont think we have seen any real damage from online piracy yet," Zyatitsky said. "We are dividing something that promises to be huge in the future because everyone heard it is big money in the United States."