All of us want to "do the right thing," even if we aren't related to Spike Lee. When you've been around the block a few times, you come to realize that honesty is not only the best policy - it's the easiest policy, because there comes a point in life where you get tired of looking over your shoulder trying to dodge the law. It's just easier to do things on the up and up.
But there are some things, try as you might, that you cannot do legally, despite trying very, very hard.
MP3 players are popular items in Israel nowadays, and the job of an MP3 player is, of course, to play MP3 files. Lots of people around town (whichever town you happen to be in) are sporting iPods and lesser, portable music players, and, of course, nearly all are listening to digital music files.
But just where do they get their music from? Of course, we all know about file trading sites and pirate download sites with music aplenty for those who have no qualms about violating a basket of laws. And, of course, it's a simple operation to rip an MP3 from a CD (an activity that some diehard DRM types would consider borderline illegal on its own). But what if you, a resident of Israel, want to download music from a service like the iTunes Music Store (www.apple.com/itunes/music)? The MSN Music Store (music.msn.com)? The new, improved and legalized Napster (www.napster.com)?
Fuhgeddaboutit. Can't be done. You cannot buy music from any of the "big name" on-line digital music sites if you connect to that site from a computer located inside the State of Israel, period. It's not a matter of their not accepting your credit card - they won't even accept your order! As soon as they detect the origin of your computer's IP address, each of the sites listed returns a message to the effect that "We don't want your business because of where you live."
Considering that Apple's Israeli distributor, Yeda (www.yeda.co.il), sells iPods, you would think that they or their bosses in Cupertino would have given some thought on exactly what their Israeli customers are going to listen to on their devices.
And considering that Microsoft is so well represented here and provides a wide variety of services (check out msn.co.il), you would think it wouldn't be a big deal for them to set up an on-line store that would sell their brand of digital music, the super-DRM protected "Plays for Sure" stuff (www.playsforsure.com) that most users in other countries wouldn't sneeze at (www.eff.org/IP/DRM/guide) - but we don't get to download even that!
Interestingly, nearly all on-line distribution services other than iTunes are affiliated in some way with Plays for Sure, so directories like MP3.com, which directs you to the appropriate site where you can purchase music, are absolutely useless to locals.
Israelis can look, but they can't touch - or buy.
Why? Well, it's not because of anti-Semitism or anti-Israelism - a buck's a buck, even if it it is denominated in shekels. It's more likely because of Israel's poor reputation in the realm of digital rights management, or contract issues between local franchisees of DRM technology, or - who knows? The bottom line is, as far as Apple and Microsoft are concerned, if you want to listen to digital music in Israel, you have two choices - either download illegal files, or "roll your own" MP3s by ripping a CD.
Not that there aren't alternatives, but they are either problematic or provide a less than satisfactory solution. There are sites in Israel, such as Israeli record company NMC's www.songs.co.il site, where you can download individual song files in MP3 format for NIS 4 - a better deal (at current exchange rates) than the 99 cents charged by iTunes, and less restrictive in terms of how you can listen to it than either Apple's or MSN's service (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Itunes and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plays-for-sure). It's a great site - if you happen to like Israeli music by the artists signed to NMC. But if you're in the mood for some classic Temptations, say, or even something on this week's American or UK Top 40, songs.co.il won't do you any good.
Songs.co.il provides a less than satisfactory solution for music lovers with eclectic tastes, although it's a good site to keep bookmarked.
AllofMP3, on the other hand (allofmp3.com), provides a great solution for locals who want to purchase legal copies of digital media files - maybe.
AllofMP3 has tens of thousands of songs and albums available for download, and the site is significantly cheaper than either the iTunes store or any of the MSN-affiliated sites. You don't pay per song, you pay per megabyte of download, and most full length albums work out to a cost of less than US $2 apiece. Even better, you can freely order from within Israel, and there are no restrictions on how you use the file.
AllofMP3 even has its own MP3 software, which you can get for free from alltunes.com/en-index.shtml. And best of all, the site is completely, 100% legal, so there are no legal questions or ethical dilemmas associated with using the site. Sounds great, no?
Or, maybe, too good to be true. The RIAA, which represents the digital rights of US record companies, is not a fan of AllofMP3 (see the FAQ at www.museekster.com/allofmp3faq.htm). According to Russian copyright law, AllofMP3 is operating within the confines of international law, and the site says it pays royalties to artists (allofmp3.com.com.brainsip.com). The RIAA has been trying to close down AllofMP3 for years, but has been unsuccessful, so far.
However, a page put up by the Israeli portal into the site (www.allofmp3.co.il) says the site was closed down recently due to the threat of legal prosecution.
Of course, Israeli law is different from Russian law, and if the Russian site is operating properly, there's no reason not to order directly from allofmp3.com.
That's a big "if," though, and it depends on who you ask. And using AllofMP3 also assumes you would be willing to submit your credit card number to a site in country with a poor reputation for battling credit card fraud (although I could only find one page, at tinyurl.com/mw6yt, where users of the site complained that they had been ripped off; generally AllofMP3 has a very good reputation among its customers, from what I could tell).
Apparently, you can use Paypal to purchase a special temporary credit card number from a company affiliated with AllofMP3. The temporary number is used a single time and is good only for the limited purchase amount you order it for, meaning that even if a Russian hacker steals your card number from AllofMP3's site, it won't do them any good. I couldn't confirm this, though, because as of this (Sunday) morning, I couldn't get onto allofmp3.com because the site is "closed for maintenance," which means that either someone is fixing something, or that the RIAA has gotten its way and now, the only choice available to honest Israeli folk who want to buy digital music, is turning into a digital desperado.