The country of Belarus recently passed a law that allows the use of intellectual property without the consent of copyright holders from so-called “unfriendly” foreign nations. This includes all copyrighted materials such as books, music, movies, TV shows, and computer software.
Belarus borders Russia to the east and northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west and Latvia and Lithuania to the northwest. Belarus was a founding member of the USSR in 1922, and stayed as a member until 1991, when the USSR was formally dissolved.
The law was signed by president Alexander Lukashenko earlier this month, making it legal in Belarus to access pirated materials if the rights holders are from “unfriendly nations,” meaning “foreign states that commit unfriendly actions against Belarusian legal entities and (or) individuals.”
Belarus, as an ally of Russia, has faced financial sanctions from the European Union, Canada, United Kingdom and United States, so it is quite likely each of those countries is on the “unfriendly” list. In particular, the U.S. issued sanctions in July 2022 that cut Belarus off from most financial institutions, trade and technology imports, and cut Lukashenko off from his financial assets in the U.S. The new law, passed in response to these sanctions, seeks to impose its own economic harm on the west.
The law provides that people using unlicensed or pirated content must pay a fee to the state-owned National Patent Authority for such use. These fees are to be held for three years, at which point they will be kept by the state if no rightsholder has made a claim. The downside of this arrangement is that rightsholders will not be paid according to the price they set, but rather according to a price determined by the Belarusan government based on an undisclosed formula, which the government has stated will include deductions for management and accounting expenses of up to 20%.
Belarus is a signatory to several treaties regarding intellectual property rights as part of the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the new law would violate its obligations under those treaties. In turn, this will likely isolate Belarus economically and prevent any investment in the country’s local creative industries. It may also influence Russia, which has also been considering laws intended to legalize use of unlicensed copyrighted content from some western countries.
The most significant impact to copyright holders in “unfriendly” countries may arise if Belarus becomes a safe haven for organizations that promote online piracy, thereby encouraging copyright infringement on a global scale.