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From Russia with ‘loads

If you think the teeth-gnashing over unauthorized music downloading begins and ends with Kazaa and Limewire, you’re just not thinking globally.

If you think the teeth-gnashing over unauthorized music downloading begins and ends with Kazaa and Limewire, you’re just not thinking globally. A new potential legal battleground on the issue could soon emerge with a focus on, of all places, Russia. A handful of Web sites bearing the “.ru” suffix are offering extremely cheap, downloadable, high-quality MP3s of thousands of CDs.

If the popularity of these sites grows, as it seems to have been doing dramatically in the past year, does anyone think the record labels whose products they’re selling will stand by idly and let all this post-Soviet-breakup capitalism run rampant?

What’s available on the Russian sites is, in a word, enticing. The two primary sites in question– Club and AllofMP3 are heavier on current and recent Top 40 fare, but both have a generous selection of hiphop, Latin pop, and classic rock as well. The selection at AllofMP3 is greater, and it also offers music-video downloads.

Here’s the best part: All that music is available in high-quality MP3 (few tracks are encoded at less than 192kbps bitrate), all of it’s completely burnable and compatible with all players, and all of it costs about a penny per megabyte–literally less than you’d pay to hear any of these songs on the jukebox in your corner bar. And in fact, AllofMP3 offers music by some artists free of charge, as sort of a loss leader feature for registered members.

If this all sounds too good to be true, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Club’s site swears up and down that everything it’s doing falls in line with Russian copyright law: “MP3Search.Ru Club has an agreement with RUSSIAN ORGANIZATION FOR MULTIMEDIA & DIGITAL SYSTEMS (ROMS) #-01-17,” the site’s fine print reads. “According to that MP3Search.Ru Club makes assignments of author’s fee for using their compositions.”

But suppose you don’t live in Russia. Are you violating American copyright laws by using these sites? That’s where it gets murky. The CD discussion site Museekster conducted what it calls a thorough review of the legal nuts and bolts behind these sites, and came to the conclusion that it’s all on the up and up–at least in Russia.

“Copyrights for downloads in Russia are more or less equal to the rights radio stations have to pay for broadcasting music,” the site reads. “But the most important factor is that one U.S. dollar is worth lots of rubles [about 30 as of this writing]. In Russia, CDs cost about $2-3. So Allofmp3 to Russians is in fact as expensive as iTunes is to Americans.”

If you’re comfortable with taking this kind of armchair legal advice, you’ll probably be inclined to take your chances with the sites. The product is great, the price is certainly right, and from reading the posts of dozens of users, it doesn’t seem that anyone has regretted giving either site their credit-card information. (I would avoid the many U.S. sites that seem to be offering the same service, however.)

The bottom line seems to be–repeat, seems to be–that Americans have every right to obtain music from anyone who has a legal right to sell it in their country. But as was the case with Napster five years ago, these sites are probably legally available for use only because nobody has taken steps to shut them down them yet. If you’re OK with residing in what seems to be a legal grey area, my advice now is the same as it was during Napster’s pre-litigation heyday: Get it while the getting’s good.

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