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Belarus legalizes piracy – but citizens will have to pay for it

Meanwhile, the regime is angling to pocket the money owed to rightsholders

Life just got a whole lot better in Belarus – apparently piracy is now legal as long as the media being stolen is from a country that has been mean to the Eastern European utopia.

Hopefully it's clear that was sarcasm. Belarus is an authoritarian state that has no qualms rigging elections and restricting civil liberties. Since 2020, a huge pro-democracy movement sparked by a fraudulent presidential poll has been harshly suppressed, with journalists and citizens arbitrarily beaten and detained for having the wrong opinion.

Belarus's first and only president, Alexander Lukashenko, was voted into office in 1994. In 2004, after managing to extend his first term, he eliminated presidential term limits with another sketchy referendum. The country is widely referred to as "Europe's last dictatorship" and has deep ties with the Russian regime.

Due to its support for Russia's war against Ukraine, Belarus is likewise subject to sanctions by the US, UK and EU governments. Much of the intellectual property that Belarus relies on comes from these spheres of influence and, as we have seen with the huge pullout of software companies from Russia, rightsholders are either no longer able or willing to supply or license their products in Belarus.

But such obstacles aren't a problem when you're Lukashenko, who apparently opted simply to legalize access to pirated movies, music, TV shows and software in a new law [PDF] signed on January 3.

The legislation was spotted by pirate-friendly news outlet TorrentFreak, which reports on the peer-to-peer file sharing protocol BitTorrent (heavily used for piracy) and other copyright and IP issues. In their words:

The law 'On the limitation of exclusive rights to objects of intellectual property' targets rightsholders or collective management licensing organizations representing multiple rightsholders.

If these are from foreign countries "committing unfriendly actions" against Belarus, "which forbade or did not give consent" for lawfully published items of intellectual property to be used in Belarus, their exclusive rights relating to specified product classes will be limited.

In this case, rightsholder permission will not be required for content to be used in Belarus.

The law specifies computer programs and audiovisual works, including movies, music, and TV shows. The document states that film distribution, cinema organizations, and broadcasters are covered by the law, suggesting that first-run movies and live TV channels will also be affected.

However, this being Belarus, it's not all swings and roundabouts for a hard-pressed population who might hope that torrenting HBO's House of the Dragon provides a moment of respite from the daily grind. No, the law says that if you use unlicensed content, you have to pay for it.

This is because Belarus has agreed to observe a number of IP treaties managed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). So how do we get the money to rightsholders whose work has been pirated?

Here's the clever bit: to comply with WIPO rules, remuneration is to be paid to the National Patent Authority, through which rightsholders will be able to claim what's owed to them. So that's all above board – except that if the money isn't claimed after three years, it will be "transferred by the Patent Authority to the republican budget within three months," the law says.

Do you see where this is going? The National Patent Authority banks with Belarusbank, which is 99 percent owned by the government and both are subject to sanctions. Will rightsholders even be able to make a claim?

Not only that, but they won't be the ones setting the market price for pirated wares – that job falls to, you guessed it, the Belarusian government, and who knows on what basis they will make these decisions.

So to sum up, a criminal regime is allowing its population to steal but is charging them for the privilege and lining its own pockets. Plus ça change. ®

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