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Metallica verses Napster, Inc. was a 2000 U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California case that focused on copyright infringement, racketeering, and unlawful use of digital audio interface devices. Metallica vs. Napster, Inc. was the first case that involved an artist suing a peer-to-peer file sharing(“P2P”) software company.
At the turn of the millennium, Metallica took on file-sharing giant Napster and won. On the 20thanniversary of that landmark case in the music industry in the digital age, we retrospectively consider the arguments made, and how they’ve shaped our scene since…
“If I wanna give my shit away for free, I’ll give it away for free,” Metallica’s Lars Ulrich noted in a 2014 Reddit AMA, reflecting on the band’s notorious copyright battle against ill-fated file-sharing service Napster. “That choice was taken away from me.”
Two decades have passed since their industry-changing lawsuit, which centered around the illegal trading of MP3 recordings. But now, as the music world grasps for fragments of normalcy during a global pandemic, the drummer’s comments sting with renewed relevance. The coronavirus has shrunk a once-gaping chasm of opportunity between stadium-packing pop acts and SoundCloud upstart beat-makers, leaving all artists on precarious footing. The forecast is foggy for everyone, regardless of how many Grammys decorate their walls or the vastness of zeroes adorning their bank accounts. Surveying the remnants of canceled tours, delayed album releases and in-limbo paychecks, every musician’s sense of “choice” is suddenly — if temporarily — at the mercy of an invisible villain.
On April 13, 2000, Metallica became a very visible villain for a hoard of infuriated fans. By attempting to block over 300,000 users who swapped their songs on Napster, they marked a symbol of celebrity greed and melted morality — multi-platinum metal stars too distracted by dollar signs to realize the little-guy side casualties of their quest for legal vengeance. And in 2020, an era of paltry Spotify revenue and decimated album sales — with GoFundMe serving as merch booths, live-streamed living rooms replacing concert venues — it’s worth looking back at the Napster fiasco with sobering clarity.
Sure, Metallica’s approach was too aggressive in its muscle-flexing. But at the core, in their pursuit to preserve the integrity of an artist’s work, weren’t they right?