Few music fans like to think of themselves as thieves, but those who use their credit cards to buy songs from controversial Russian-based websites may be engaging in international piracy. At iTunes.com, the latest Alicia Keys album “As I Am” costs $9.99 but at the Russian-run MP3sparks.com, it’s a mere $2.40. While there’s no difference in sound quality at either site, the music industry says there’s a big difference in legitimacy and legality.
A number of Russian-based websites such as MP3sparks.com, MP3fiesta.com and MP3skyline.com currently sell the latest downloads from Top 40 American artists for pennies on the dollar. Until its closure in June 2007, the site AllofMP3.com reigned as king of the Russian music websites and was often engaged in legal battles contesting its legitimacy. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Russian-based websites violate international laws by selling copyright-protected works without permission. In December 2006, RIAA slapped AllofMP3.com with a $1.65 trillion lawsuit for 11 million songs downloaded between June and October 2006.
RIAA was never awarded the sum, but it was instrumental in helping shut down the site. However, MP3sparks.com immediately popped up in its place and the Russianf government and RIAA have since played MP3 Whac-A-Mole. In the meantime, music fans enter a gray legal world when they use their credit cards to buy downloads at such sites. While MP3sparks.com offers the same quality downloads found at legitimate sites such as iTunes, RIAA and other music industry organizations say that downloading at such sites constitutes complicity in piracy and theft.
Eric Garland, CEO of the online media tracking firm Bigchampagne.com, says that the Russian MP3 pirate sites are unlikely to disappear anytime soon because they offer convenience and low prices for the newest songs.
Since the advent of file-sharing and P2P networks in the late ’90s, music fans have long debated the morality of downloading copyrighted works for free. Dan Cutler, a 24-year-old musician and radio production assistant from New Orleans, regularly downloads music through file-sharing networks. Like many Americans who download music, he doesn’t know much about the Russian sites, but doesn’t necessarily rule them out simply because of the legal status.
“I think I’m of the age when P2P file sharing was popular and not yet illegal, so I don’t really have a crisis of conscience about it. Sometimes I use iTunes, but there is a bunch of stuff they don’t have so I often look elsewhere,” says Cutler.
Music fan Scott Sullivan from Highland Park, Ill., also regularly uses P2P networks to download music or try out the latest albums before he decides to make a purchase. Sullivan has been aware of the Russian sites for a while, but has not used them because he is concerned about using his credit card at a Russian-based site engaged in legal battles.
“You don’t really know where your credit card numbers are going. I just think once you cross international boundaries, there is a big gray area and no one there to back you up if you end up with [fraudulent] charges,” says Sullivan.
Paying at a site such as MP3sparks.com isn’t always a simple matter anyway. After taking the standpoint that AllofMP3.com was engaged in illegal activities in November 2006, Visa and MasterCard both stopped accepting transactions through the site and set a precedent for dealing with future pirate sites. Many U.S. consumers report that their cards are declined on such sites, but the Russians respond by constantly running payments through new systems, front websites and new countries. Payment methods have become so complicated that there’s even a message board where users can learn about new payment methods and how to skirt the system.
Shane Keats, a research analyst with McAfee SiteAdvisor, says that sites hosted in Russia are among some of the riskiest on the Web. SiteAdvisor checks websites for “drive-by downloads,” malicious scripts, spyware and other problems. Although SiteAdvisor ranked MP3sparks.com and most of the music sites as safe sites to visit, there isn’t always a way to tell whether credit card information is truly secure. Keats says that while the sites may be engaged in copyright infringement, they probably have a vested interest in keeping credit card information safe.
“These sites have a real business model and I suspect that they treat credit cards reasonably securely because if they didn’t, customers would eventually stop coming,” says Keats.
As the credit card associations and music industry organizations clamp down, many consumers are seeing an increasing threat of lawsuits. Although the RIAA has filed thousands of lawsuits against file sharing users in the past, it recently had a monumental benchmark when it won a first case against Minnesotaresident Jammie Thomas in October 2007 for $222,000, or $9,500 for each of the 24 copyrighted songs she made available on the Kazaa network. Eric Garland says that while the end users of file-sharing networks have little risk in being busted, those who use Russian websites may be in more danger because they leave behind a paper trail with their credit cards.
“Somewhere there is a database and a record of these transactions and unless you can prove that someone had unauthorized access to your account, the presumption is that you could someday be a part of some enforcement or litigation,” says Garland.
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