Back in the day, one of the obstacles that stood in the way of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) was the high level of offline and online distribution of counterfeit products in the country. At the time, a certain amount surrounded the closure of the most famous platform for illegal music – AllOfMp3.com. For Russians, it was all rather amusing considering that they could not imagine how it was possible to pay for pirated music. Whereas western users could not imagine that paid-for music, even if it was cheaper than on iTunes, might be pirated. It was this orientation towards the foreign market that led to AllOfMp3’s being buried eight years ago.
As later experience has demonstrated, piracy – particularly on a gigantic scale – can be undertaken in Russia with impunity. Well, almost. From time to time, there are showy campaigns with curious results, such as the funny renaming of songs and artists. On the whole, however, with the exception of a few rarities, one can still find any music or film for free on the Russian internet within a couple of minutes.
Not that long ago, the United States once again included Russia on its list of countries that actively breach intellectual property rights. For some years, the Office of the United States Trade Representative has branded the Russian social networking website Vkontakte as one of the main propagators of piracy. This could lead to legal proceedings within the framework of the WTO. However, most likely, the matter will probably end with some kind of ostentatious removal of content, only for it to quickly return. Clearly, the “anti-piracy law” that was debated so hotly and passed in 2013 did not work out as it was supposed to.
Can’t or don’t want to?
One might have been able to believe that the Russian authorities simply have not learned how to fight cunning pirates. This might have been a plausible theory back when the “prime suspect” Vkontakte was under uncontrollable management. However, it became amusingly implausible when the social network’s wayward founder Pavel Durov was replaced as CEO by Boris Dobrodeyev, the son of the head of the state-owned media holding VGTRK, a figure without doubt close to the state. If it really were the state’s will, no more trace of counterfeiting would remain on Russia’s most important social network.
There is obviously no such will and on the whole it is Russian copyright owners who demand the rare anti-piracy campaigns that take place. Every now and then, an announcement is made that certain resources will be blocked or content such as domestic serials that nobody in their right mind would ever think of watching will be removed. When it comes to music, it can be harder to find the pirated files of certain Russian artists than those of foreigners: persistent copyright owners can finally get what they want if they don’t make a noise. However, it’s clear that this is a result of their own efforts and not those of the political authorities – it is up to the drowning to help save themselves.
I would venture to suggest that the state regards pirates indifferently, if not favorably, for political reasons. Understanding that some kind of online freedom is necessary, the authorities have made a tacit deal with the population: Freedom of content in exchange for freedom of speech. To put it bluntly: Download as much “Interns” or “Game of Thrones” as you want, as many books and as much music as you like, but don’t get upset if grani.ru or Navalny are blocked. While the state keeps close tabs on all references to the Right Sector without references to the organization’s banning in Russia, it makes no objection to illegal downloads. Indeed, the infliction of damage to transnational corporations is not considered shameful at all, perhaps even the opposite.
Bread and games
So long as the man on the street can download films and music, sit at a screen with a beer and watch the next season, there will be no need to worry about his “passions” or online political activism. People have become used to an internet from which they can download and watch any film they like, in the highest quality, at any time they want, as well as having television. To remove this mass of online audio and video freebies would be akin to taking away food from the stores. It is not clear how a people deprived of bread and/or games might react. Or perhaps it is all too clear.
What’s interesting is that the Ministry of Justice has three times put forward a ludicrous pretext to prevent Russia’s Pirate Party from registering as a party. A registered party cannot apparently have the word “pirate” in its name because piracy (in the sense of capturing ships) is a crime. In view of analogue movements in Europe, the Russian authorities clearly understand the potential for support from Russians if an equivalent political force were to emerge, although at the moment the movement is marginal and meetings only draw about 150 people.
However, such potential would be realized in one scenario:: If the screws in the distribution of licensed content were seriously tightened, users of pirated material would rally around a party that defended them. They would perhaps also recollect that censorship is inadmissible and that privacy and secrecy of correspondence are integral rights – the other principles listed in the manifesto of the Russian “pirates”.
However, for the time being the state does not seem ready to share its monopoly on the defense of interests close to the heart of Russian scroungers. Moreover, defending these interests costs the state practically nothing.
Alexander Plushev is a journalist, Internet expert and a top-rate Russian blogger. When not pounding words into his keyboard, he also moderates several broadcasts on the independent FM radio station Echo Moskowi. Plushev wrote for the TV show “vesti.net” on the news channel “Rossija 24,” served as editor-in-chief of the Lenta.ru news portal as well as deputy editor-in-chief at the Axel Springer Russia publishing house and the magazine “Russian Newsweek.”