Monday, October 16, 2006

From Russia With Love

I have this Russian friend - we call him Vlad. Vlad makes his living by dealing in controlled substances. Much like the prescription drugs shipped in from Canada that are all the rage with the geriatric set these days, Vlad's trade is a legally ambiguous one. Sure, the actual product itself is perfectly safe and one that millions of people purchase every day. But Vlad's method of acquisition is questionable at best. The murkiest of the murky issues at hand, however, is if Vlad is even permitted to be selling this legal commodity to us at the hilariously competitive price he offers.

Vlad is an MP3 dealer.

And Vlad doesn't hold a monopoly in this market either. He has friends, partners, and competitors, all dealing MP3s to a voracious world market via flashy, well-designed websites. And his prices, as mentioned earlier, are hard to beat: whereas iTunes and Yahoo Music, et al. might charge $.99 a song, Vlad, Sergei, Alexei and the gang all offer music for the low, low price of around $.15 a song, with a great selection of complete albums ranging in cost from $1.50 to $2.00. For their countrymen, I'm sure that's a fair price, and they're arguably offering a valuable service. But for the shoppers in America, England, France, and the rest of the EU, that's a RIDICULOUS price - one that you'd be a fool to ignore. And because he operates out of a country with relaxed intellectual property laws and a struggling economy with a weak currency, he can keep his business afloat without warranting reprisal.

For those of us here in America, we've now had it ingrained into our minds that it's illegal for us to download copyrighted material using file-sharing services such as Kazaa and Limewire. We may continue to use such software, but at least we are aware of the risks. As for Vlad's select group of friends, well, we're not so sure what we're doing is technically within "the rules." Yes, we are actually purchasing the music. We're slapping down our credit cards and buying songs and albums using our hard-earned pay, and the fact that currency is changing hands makes us feel a little better and a little safer. Vlad will assure us ad nauseum that we're breaking no law, that he has made arrangements with those who own the rights to these pieces of intellectual property, but something tells me that if I approached an attorney for the RIAA, I'd get a completely different answer. The bottom line is, the Duke here is pretty certain that nobody knows the answer to this question, because there is no answer, and anybody who says differently is merely stating either their opinion or their desire.

The RIAA could probably throw a few lawsuits at my friends and I, and we'd cower, recant, pay a fine, and they'd come out the victors. But what if Rocky, for instance, decided to show a little moxy? What if he decided to take a stand and hire an expensive lawyer to defend himself? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe that there is a specific law or regulation written anywhere stating: "thou shalt not purchase discounted MP3s from Vlad, Sergei, Alexei and the rest of the foreign distributors." After all, it's not illegal to buy a Persian rug from Iran at a discounted price, and it's not illegal to order a pair of all-leather hiking boots from Kenya for $19.95 a pair. Rocky could probably win the case if he had enough patience (not likely) and deep enough pockets (he doesn't). Maybe Rocky's a bad example, but you get the point.

But if it's just as risky to buy music from Vlad, and we're too cheap to purchase it from iTunes, what's to stop us from doing the same thing we've been doing since high school, downloading tracks for free using file-sharing services? Well, it all comes back to guilt. While it might be just as illegal to download music from Vlad as it is to download it from John Doe in Randomsville, USA using Kazaa, that $.15 is enough to calm our anxieties and reduce any dissonance we might incur from knowingly breaking the law.

And that is why Vlad probably drives a Mercedes.

(Update: The folks at Idolator just posted some new info about Vlad. Looks like our parents won't let us play with him and Sergei anymore.)


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