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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

Twitter Github is a music service based in Russia that sells music by the megabyte. It starts at 500MB for $5 and offers the music in a variety of formats (including 320kbps mp3, which is roughly equivalent to straight off the CD). I heard about this service a year or two ago and I immediately though, "Uh huh, and I can get DVDs for $2 in China too."

Apparently, it's legal. A review of the service also suggests that it is legal. It's essentially taking advantage of a rightful Russian distributor of music's willingness to make a sweet deal. I like to think of it as music arbitrage.

The million dollar question, though, is whether it's ethical. As we all know, what is legal and what is moral aren't the same. The publisher and composer seems to be getting paid satisfactorily, but the performers and record companies seem to be left high and dry. Applying Kant's universalizability test, it would clearly be a bad thing if this became the norm. That, obviously, is not a proper guide to the morality of an action but it is helpful in recognizing the effects of an action in extremis.

It seems like this would be akin to trying to find the cheapest price on an item or looking to outsource work to a foreign country. You are trying to get the maximum value for your money. You endeavor to deal with third parties that are legitimate, ethical, and good. If you found out that the goods you bought were stolen, you have no right to them after such knowledge. But what if sellers were just cutting sweetheart deals and the goods were legitimately theirs to offer?

Is it wrong to buy goods from a foreign land where U.S. companies are willing to sell their wares for much less than here? If so, then you would have to agree that purchasing American pharmaceuticals from Mexico or Canada was wrong. Obviously, that is ludicrous. It is not immoral to make such purchases; it is more a matter of inefficiency that prevents people from engaging in such arbitrage.

The matter seems to come down to whether the Russian organization is violating its rights to distribute music. It has a monopoly on the distribution of music within Russia. If a Russian citizen were accessing, then it would be acting in accordance with its contract. If an American visited from within the United States, it arguably has no right to offer the music to him.

Is that properly any of my concern? Many Internet users have broadband connections. Most of their terms of use agreements forbid them from hosting open wireless networks. Many people do just that. If I were considering connecting to one of these open networks, is it my responsibility to find out what ISP that network is using, what the terms of service are, and whether the access point is in violation of the owner's particular terms of service? It seems absurd as well. Your responsibility extends to making sure that there isn't any obvious signs that the network isn't open: WEP-enabling, MAC-address restrictions, or even station naming. Barring those, it's the equivalent of a vacant lot without fencing or trespassing signs—you can use it temporarily but you can't assume any of the usual property rights.

In the end, I'm on the fence. It seems too good to be true, but that might be a perception based on an entire life spent under the pricing scheme of the American music industry. I would be interested in any of your thoughts on the subject: feel free to email me or leave a comment.

[UPDATE (9/17/04): After some thinking, I believe that I'll have to conclude that this is definitely an improper thing. AllOfMP3 is clearly trading on a loophole in the Russian copyright laws. The performer of the song should be compensated when you buy a CD or download music from the Internet. This service does not compensate the performer or the label that produced the CD. That's the crux of the issue—the violation of the trader principle. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to pay 99¢ like everyone else.]

[UPDATE (4/7/2006): TechCrunch has included AllOfMP3 in their comparison of online music download services. For all of the reasons cited above, I believe it's irresponsible to include them.]