MOSCOW – A music download site that was the poster child for U.S. anti-piracy crusaders and an obstacle to Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization has been shut down by Russian authorities, according to the U.S. government.
The victory, however, was short lived: The same company behind Allofmp3.com has launched a similar site that resembles the shuttered service, provides the same legal disclaimers and sells songs at a fraction of the price of iTunes.
Moscow prosecutors declined to comment on whether allofmp3.com had been shut down, leaving it unclear if the government was behind the site's disappearance.
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But the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington said Russian authorities severed the connection between the company, Media Services, and its Internet service provider, Master Host, using a court order.
"This action follows months and years of the U.S. government, Congress and industry urging Russia to step up its protection of intellectual property," Gretchen Hamel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative, said in a statement.
Last week's unplugging of allofmp3.com coincided with talks this week between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush in the United States.
That fueled speculation that Russia was demonstratively clamping down on its online piracy problem in a bid to sweeten relations that have soured amid disagreements on Kosovo and a planned U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe.
Allofmp3 has been cast as the epitome of Russia's shoddy copyright enforcement and repeatedly held up by U.S. trade negotiators as imperiling Moscow's WTO bid.
But a sister site has quietly emerged from the wings.
Mp3sparks is run by the same Moscow-based company behind Allofmp3. Its director, Vadim Mamotin, has insisted that its Web sites are 100 percent legitimate.
Aside from the color scheme, the new site's interface is virtually identical to allofmp3.com.
Its disclaimer is similar, too: "MediaServices pays license fees for all materials downloaded from the site subject to the Law of the Russian Federation," it says.
A call to the contact number listed on the site reached the puzzled receptionist at a company selling wooden flooring.
"Why do people keep calling here?" said the woman, who did not give her name.
Mamotin maintains that by paying royalties to a Russian licensing group, allofmp3.com was in compliance with Russian laws.
The Western music industry contends, however, that the licensing group never had the permission of record labels to collect and distribute royalties on their behalf.
This fall, Visa International and MasterCard Inc. stopped accepting credit card transactions for purchases made at MediaServices' sites and a slew of Western record labels are suing the company, which is already the focus of three copyright violation cases in Russia.
The music companies contend that MediaServices' sites sell millions of songs by their artists without paying them anything. Media reports have put the company's annual revenues from allofmp3.com at $18 million to $30 million.
"Allofmp3.com violated copyright law in Russia and internationally by ripping off artists and taking music it had no right to sell worldwide," said Igor Pozhitkov, head of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry in Russia. "The apparent closure is a positive move which recognizes what we have always stated — that the site is illegal. But this is not the end of the story — Russia is a huge source of Internet piracy."
He would not name any sites he considers pirates, however, on the grounds that it would amount to advertising them.
Oleg Nezus, the head of the Russian Multimedia and Internet Society, the disputed licensing body which collected the royalties from MediaServices, said he had not received fees from allofmp3.com for months.
Nezus provided a 2004 decision by the Moscow Arbitration Court that obliges his organization to represent MediaServices. He said he has tried to distribute "substantial" contributions among rights holders, but has been rebuffed.
He confirmed that his organization had a licensing agreement with mp3spark.com.