Belarus Has Basically Legalized Music Piracy — Will Russia Be Next?
The law, passed earlier this month, legalizes infringement of copyrighted entertainment from "unfriendly countries," primarily in the West.
The Eastern European country of Belarus has adopted a law that essentially legalizes piracy of music and other forms of copyrighted entertainment, which could make it a hotbed for piracy well beyond its borders.
Under the law, which President Alexander Lukashenko approved in early January, copyrighted music, films and other audiovisual content originating from “unfriendly countries” can be used in Belarus without permission from rights holders.
The law doesn’t provide a list of “unfriendly countries.” But based on the Belarusian government’s previous statements, the legislation primarily targets Western nations, which slapped sanctions on Belarus following mass repressions of people for protesting the rigged presidential vote in 2020 and, more recently, because of Belarus’ support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Belarus has never been a major music market — it does not show up in the IFPI’s ranking of the 62 biggest markets — and the major global labels had traditionally run operations there from their Russian offices. Since the labels pulled out of Russia after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, they have also cut ties with Belarus. The country, which sits between Russia to the east and Ukraine to the south, backed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion last year by allowing Russia to launch part of its attack from Belarusian territory.
Despite its small stature in the music industry, analysts say that under the government’s piracy-permitting law Belarus could play an outsized role in spurring more global piracy.
“As Belarus is a very small music market — a rounding error in the global market — there will be little direct impact in terms of music revenues for western rights holders,” says Mark Mulligan, music analyst at MIDiA Research.
“What might be impactful though is whether piracy networks start to operate from Belarus, distributing globally but operating under the protection of Belarussian law.”
The music industry is already dealing with a spate of piracy networks based in Russia and surrounding countries that are distributing pirated content to other markets, sometimes on other continents. Among the best-known operations are the stream-ripping websites FLVTO.biz and 2conv.com, run by Tofig Kurbanov, who reportedly lives in southern Russia.
More than two dozen record labels and the RIAA have pursued Kurbanov in the U.S. for copyright damages. Last February, a U.S. district judge in Alexandria, Va., approved an $82.9 million judgement against the Russian for circumventing YouTube’s anti-piracy measures and infringing copyrights of audio recordings. The court found that Kurbanov’s operation drew more than 300 million users from around the world to his sites in a single year. (Kurbanov says he plans to appeal.)
And in Brazil, Paulo Rosa, IFPI affiliate Pro Música’s president, told Billboard in 2021 that most of the fake streams being peddled to consumers in the South American country originate from hacker operations in Russia.
The Belarusian piracy law could nevertheless set an example for neighboring Russia, which for months has been considering a similar move to legalize copyrighted content from certain Western countries. Since the early 2000s, Russia has often followed the example of Belarus in strengthening authoritarian rule.
Before the war with Ukraine, Russia had the 13th-largest music market in 2020 with revenues of $328 million, a 58% bump from 2019; it was the fastest-growing market in the world in 2019 and 2020, according to the IFPI.
While Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point since the Cold War, and many Western companies have left the country, the legalization of piracy would likely further isolate Russia — and could “set back the Russian music industry by decades,” one person at a global music company tells Billboard.
In recent years, Russia had made a substantial effort to shed its reputation as a place where piracy ran rampant. VK, the Russian analog of Facebook, which for years allowed users to share unlicensed music tracks on the platform, eventually cleaned up its act and signed license agreements with global majors a few years ago.
Now that the majors have left Russia, dozens of pirated albums have already been reappearing on VK, including recent releases from Taylor Swift (Midnights, on Universal Music Group’s Republic Records) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (Return of the Dream Canteen, on Warner Music Group’s Warner Records).
The legalization of piracy would certainly make it harder for Western streaming services to start operating in Russia again, says Mulligan. While Russia is still “earlier in its streaming development,” he says, “longer term it could become a significant market and at that stage Western rightsholders would want to ensure that their music is being paid for when it is being consumed at scale.”
New laws legalizing piracy would fly in the face of treaty commitments made by both Belarus and Russia. Both countries are signatories to the Berne Convention and other World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)-administered treaties.
“Suspending IP protection as Belarus is presently considering would violate its obligations under these WIPO treaties and would seriously dampen Belarus’ opportunities to become integrated into the global trade community and to secure [Most Favored Nation] status, or to further integrate with the [European Union], thus minimizing its economic opportunities in the long term,” says Neil Turkewitz, president of Turkewitz Consulting Group.
Also, “any actions legalizing piracy would destroy any chance of investment in local creative industries and would hurt local artists and their fans the most,” the IFPI tells Billboard in a statement. “Such actions would be in clear breach of international copyright law and trade agreements.”