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Belarus legalizes digital piracy—as long as the copyright holders are from "unfriendly" countries

A new Belarus law permits piracy of digital movies and music, but with some caveats

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
Photo: Didor Sadulloev (Reuters)

Belarus, a close Russian ally that has long been subject to sanctions by the US and other countries, has passed a law permitting digital piracy for the next two years. But a wrinkle in the law turns it into an act of economic warfare: the copyright holders of pirated materials must be from from countries “unfriendly” to the Belarusian regime.

The law, first reported by Vice, was enacted on Jan. 3, 2023. It specifies that the use of intellectual property such as film, music, software, and television programs is allowed without the consent of the copyrights holders, if those entities are from countries that commit “unfriendly actions” against Belarus. The main target of the law is undoubtedly the US, which has sanctioned Belarus because of its authoritarian government and human rights record, and has imposed further sanctions since the country allied itself with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. The US also produces a lot of the world’s most popular media content, like Hollywood films and pop music.

The piracy provision will remain in place until the end of 2024, the new law states. It does say that “remuneration” will have to be paid for the use of these materials. But these fees will be collected by the state, held for three years, and then absorbed into state budgets if it’s not “claimed” by the rights holder.

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The US is the foremost target of global piracy

There were 52.5 billion visits to piracy websites globally in the first quarter of 2022, according to MUSO, a company that gathers data on piracy. Television shows are the most popular media to be pirated, accounting for almost half of all visits.

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The US itself is the country with greatest piracy “demand,” according to MUSO. That is, the highest number of visits to piracy sites—almost 11% of the global total—happen within the US. (The Russian Federation is second and India third.) MUSO also noted in its 2022 report that piracy globally had increased by almost 30% year on year.

Belarus’s new law raises several interesting questions. If a government adopts as a policy the right to infringe another country’s copyrights—and therefore to deprive it of revenues—is that economic aggression cause for even more sanctions?

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Additionally, what does it even mean for Belarus to “allow” material to be pirated—and how much are governments able to stop such activities even when they want to? In just one 2021 example, INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization, and the Korean ministry of culture, sport, and tourism announced a joint venture to tackle global digital piracy, which, they said, had ballooned since the covid-19 pandemic confined people to their homes. In the US, efforts to curb copyright theft have met resistance from campaigners who argue that increased government oversight is a threat to free speech.

There’s also the question of how Belarus plans to collect “remuneration” for pirated material. This will, presumably, depend either on users declaring their piracy or on authorities trying to oversee activities that are, by design, disguised to evade detection. Both are so unlikely that Belarus is, in all probability, not very serious about gathering fees on behalf of copyright holders.