Zing, which declined repeated requests for comment on this article and a previous one, has used free download to become the sixth-most visited site in Vietnam, and the second most popular Vietnamese music download site. Around 15 percent of its visitors are from overseas. It is not the only infringing website in Vietnam by far, but it is the most visited.
Sites that offer pirated content alongside other Internet services like Zing exist elsewhere around the world and are among the most reprehensible, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
"They want to appear as legitimate actors, and have functions unrelated to piracy, yet operate network services that include features that intentionally and effectively induce infringement," it said in a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative in August asking the government to use all the tools at its disposal to ensure Zing and others are not permitted to undermine legitimate online markets.
"These services deliberately gain market share by providing access to infringing materials, launching music services without any form of licensing, and have demonstrated continued resolve to engage in conduct based upon misappropriation."
Zingme closely resembles Facebook, which recently overtook the Vietnamese site in subscriber numbers, according to one research group. Facebook is sometimes blocked by the government because of fears it could be used to mobilize dissent against its one-party rule. Zingme is never blocked, and is more popular with younger, less educated Vietnamese. Companies and institutions often have accounts on both. The embassy has more than 18,000 friends on Zingme, compared to 12,000 on Facebook.
Many in the industry have no choice but to work with Zing even as it distributes their music and films for free. Not having your music on the site means getting an audience for live concerts, or attracting commercial sponsorship, is almost impossible, industry executives said. But a few are pushing back, among them established singer Le Quyen, who is suing Zing and eight other infringing websites.
"I'm sure that Zing is aware that what they do is wrong, but they are afraid that other singers will put pressure on them if I win the case," she said before one of her near-weekly concerts at a venue owned by her husband here. "That's why they keep avoiding my demands. Their tactic is to drag the case on until their opponent gets tired and gives up."
Some in the industry predict Zing and other websites will embrace a more legitimate model, rather like Baidu in neighboring China, which after years of complaints from international and local record labels about pirated content signed a licensing deal with its former critics last year. Major Western record labels eager to sell music in the 13th most populous country in the world have been in early talks with Zing and other sites, but there is no deal on the horizon.
For now, the sites are not taking down their unlicensed content because doing so would mean that users would flock to that of a rival, and new ones are cropping all the time. Those offering unlimited downloads of Hollywood movies for a monthly subscription as low as $2 are amassing large audiences, and could be looking to leveraging their popularity to become legitimate providers.
"In Vietnam, you build an audience first, and then you negotiate," said Phung Tien Cong, a manager at MVCorp, which is trying to establish a pay-for-song business in collaboration with Zing, other websites and license holders.
Brummitt can be reached at https://twitter.com/cjbrummitt.
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