Metallica vs. Napster: The lawsuit that redefined how we listen to music

At the turn of the millennium, Metallica took on file-sharing giant Napster and won. We retrospectively consider the arguments made in that landmark case, and how they’ve shaped our scene since…

Metallica vs. Napster: The lawsuit that redefined how we listen to music
Sam Law

At the end of the 1990s, as technology improved and internet access soared, the online realm opened up like a new frontier, full of untold possibility and peril. For purveyors of creative media, it was the rise of a new Wild West, run roughshod over by Silicon Valley’s fresh-faced cowboys in plaid shirts and cargo shorts.

Unprecedented times call for unexpected heroes, and much as few would have expected Bay Area mavericks Metallica to be the ones to make a stand for artists’ rights, none could have foretold the pertinence of their arguments two decades on.

It all began in June 1999. On the face of things, Shawn Fanning was just another bullet-headed college dropout, having departed Boston’s Northeastern University after too much partying. Following a serendipitous late-night conversation with fellow teenage ‘hacker’ Sean Parker about the difficulty in finding the material they wanted online, however, he became the creator of the peer-to-peer platform that would change how people accessed – and commoditised – music forever. In a Newsweek article, Shawn later explained that it began as a means between friends to share files and converse, "to build communities around different types of music."

Napster – titled after Shawn’s nickname – was essentially a glorified file-browser which used a stripped-back interface to grant access to MP3 files on interlinked machines. In return, any files on your system were also available for download. When the program went live later that summer, it did so with unprecedented popularity right out of the gate: millions of tracks were accessible almost overnight and user numbers were doubling every few weeks. In an era when the vast majority of music was still physically purchased on Compact Disc, an untold variety was made accessible to any listener with access to a PC and decent internet collection. The increasing prevalence of CD-burning equipment further facilitated an illicit trade.

Naturally, all of this was illegal. Copyright owners had been grappling with the implications of advancing technology since the arrival of VHS and audio-cassette. Where those mediums had natural inbuilt limitations, however – the lengthy, manual process of copying; the difficulty of mass-reproduction – Napster presented the possibility of near-instant distribution of material to millions of users using infrastructure that was already in place. Stamping ‘HOME TAPING IS KILLING MUSIC’ on the back of records simply wasn’t going to be enough, this time, to quell what many commentators observed could be an existential threat to the whole industry.

Prior to that point, Music had been a collectible. Suddenly, it was disposable.

The original anti-Napster lawsuit was filed at the beginning of the year 2000, by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for copyright infringement. Cary Sherman, their senior executive vice president and general counsel unequivocally stated, "Napster is about facilitating piracy, and trying to build a business on the backs of artists and copyright owners." Other industry heavyweights, like Gold Mountain Management's Ron Stone offered a blunter appraisal: "It is the single most insidious website I've ever seen."

Despite the suits’ forceful intervention, the lack of a recognisable industry face kept the conflict out of mainstream consciousness. That all changed, of course, when Metallica were alerted by their co-manager Cliff Burnstein that early edits of single I Disappear – a contribution to the famous Mission: Impossible 2 soundtrack, which, to the best of their knowledge was under lock-and-key until the movie’s summer release – had been leaked and was being played by 20 radio stations across America.

“I got a call from our office the next day,” drummer Lars Ulrich recounted to the Huffington Post in 2013, “saying, ‘It traces back to something called Napster. We were like, ‘Well, they fucked with us, we'll fuck with them!’”

Thus began what Lars has since succinctly labelled “the shitstorm.” April 13, 2000 would be a day that lived in infamy, as Metallica v. Napster, Inc was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California and the internet and music industry publicly came to blows. Although LA rapper Dr. Dre filed a similar complaint a few weeks later, the Bay Area thrashers were largely left alone to test the water as the tip of the spear.

“With each project,” read a press release from the band, “we go through a gruelling creative process to achieve music that we feel is representative of Metallica at that very moment in our lives. We take our craft – whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork – very seriously, as do most artists. It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is. From a business standpoint, this is about piracy – taking something that doesn't belong to you. And that is morally and legally wrong. The trading of such information – whether it's music, videos, photos, or whatever – is, in effect, trafficking in stolen goods.”

Although this move to limit the availability of their material by the multi-millionaire metal celebrities would’ve doubtless rankled with many, it was ultimately understandable. Less so was the decision to track the details of more than 335,000 users – mostly college-aged kids with limited income – who had accessed Metallica material and to demand that Napster block them from the service: a request with which Napster complied. For good measure, some of the universities whose networks were used to access files, including Yale and the University of Southern California, were also named in the lawsuit.

Even as Napster received a $15 million venture capitalist injection, the narrative had been changed. Metallica were no longer countercultural icons, but fat-cat faces of an outdated music industry.

The battle-lines were drawn with musicians as well as businessmen picking their sides. Savvy celebs – and true believers in open distribution alike – scrambled to take ‘the side of the fans’: Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Courtney Love, The Offspring. Shawn Fanning himself reported meeting Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan backstage at a show and receiving his express support. Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst was another outspoken acolyte, and his band’s ‘free’ 2000 summer tour, sponsored by Napster themselves, was one of their canniest PR moves.

Others more viciously went on the attack. LA rockers Mötley Crüe even commissioned tongue-in-cheek animated short ‘Metalligreed’ to accuse their peers of stirring up publicity for their own upcoming summer jaunt. “Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered,” bassist Nikki Sixx told MTV, with characteristic immodesty, “and I think Metallica’s hogs. They make enough off T-shirts and concert events and other forms of corporation. I think that it’s not acceptable behaviour for an artist to do that to their fans.”

Elsewhere, parties argued that physical sales would increase following Napster’s ‘free sampling’, but a study, using the definitive SoundScan music-sales-measurement system, concluded that while overall CD sales had significantly increased, purchases had bottomed-out at stores near college campuses: Napster territory. Opponents questioned whether it was fair that only those kids privileged enough to have computers should have access to music for free. Meanwhile, a silent majority of artists sat back in the safety of silence, waiting to see how the stand-off played out.

Ultimately, Napster settled their lawsuits with Metallica and Dr. Dre in July 2001. "I think we've resolved this in a way that works for fans, recording artists, and songwriters alike,” Lars would tell Billboard. “Our beef hasn't been with the concept of sharing music; everyone knows that we've never objected to our fans trading tapes of our live concert performances. The problem we had with Napster was that they never asked us or other artists if we wanted to participate in their business. We believe that this settlement will create the kind of enhanced protection for artists that we've been seeking from Napster.”

Over two decades on, nothing – and everything – has changed. After long, contentious court proceedings – involving support from acts such as the Dave Matthews Band, who released an official MP3 through the service, numerous injunctions and attempts to placate labels – Napster shut down the free file-sharing system in July 2001 and filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Flaming bright and fast in those two years, however, it lit a fire that has burned ever since. One company might be stopped in their tracks, but attempting to stem the march of progress is like trying to stop the wind.

The words, at the time, of Rob Glaser, CEO of proto-streaming outfit Real.com have proven pointedly prophetic: “All the illegal activity ends when prohibition ends. When there's a legal way for people to get what they want, mass bootlegging will recede.” Music would become cheaper, he predicted, more plentiful, far more easily available.

From the industry-dominating rise of Apple’s iTunes, and subsequent disputes over profits of that download service as well as its dependent iPod hardware, the wrangling has continued. YouTube largely built its video-streaming empire on unofficial video clips, got sued by content-producing conglomerate Viacom, then revealed that Viacom itself had been uploading many of those clips. Eventually the rise of ubiquitous subscription-streaming app Spotify pointed towards a more stable future, but with artists as high-profile as Taylor Swift forced to haggle over royalties, while others like Jay Z, Beyoncé and Kanye West set up their own service Tidal, instability lingers. Metallica, meanwhile, continued to innovate, with their ‘Metallica Mondays’ series of free concert-recordings just the latest offering in a long line.

For smaller artists, the pinch is far more acute. “Remember too, that my band, Metallica, is fortunate enough to make a great living from what it does,” Lars told a Senate Judiciary Hearing in July 2001. “Most artists are barely earning a decent wage and need every source of revenue available to scrape by.”

In a twisted form of reverse-inflation, while £9.99 buys a month of ‘premium’ access to Spotify, this is less than most of us were paying for a single record 20 years ago. In 2019, While She Sleeps shone a spotlight on their plight, a provocative T-shirt noting that 76 per cent of all music is now streamed rather than bought, with less than £0.005 paid per stream. Live performance has become the cornerstone of artists’ income and, more directly, merchandise sales from those shows.

Building a music industry with only a single pillar of support can prove catastrophic, especially when tested in times of crisis. How many of our favourite acts will be able to survive without exceptional support on fans parts? And how much of the infrastructure required to stay on the road?

Although, ultimately, guitarist Kirk Hammett has acknowledged that Metallica achieved little with their crusade, looking back during a 2014 Reddit AMA, there was a hint of vindication for Lars. "I wish we had been better prepared for that shitstorm that we found ourselves in,” he wrote. “I was stunned that people thought it was about money. People used the word 'greed' all the time, which was so bizarre. The whole thing was about one thing and one thing only: control. Not about the internet, not about money, not about file sharing, not about giving shit away for free or not, but about whose choice it was. If I wanna give my shit away for free, I'll give it away for free. That choice was taken away from me."

“History has proved that we were somewhat right,” Lars is quoted as telling The Huffington Post in 2013. “It'll be in the first five sentences of my obituary, and I sort of accept that.”

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