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Metallica’s Fight Against Napster Was The Least Metal Thing They’ve Ever Done

In 1999, music lovers everywhere were given a gift from a 19-year-old college student named Shawn Fanning. Napster was a peer-to-peer file sharing service that was incredibly easy to use. All you had to do was search through the browser for whatever song you wanted, and once you found it, you could download an mp3 from another user. By using the site, you agreed to have your files shared between users, making the application a modern underground version of tape trading. When hard rock stalwarts Metallica discovered the service, its days were numbered. 

On April 13, 2000, Metallica sued fans, Napster, and specific colleges that refused to block the service. What happened to Metallica to make them so upset about people who wanted to listen to their music? Were they wrong to get into this feud? Metallica is still dealing with Napster backlash almost two decades after the suit was settled, and the stories of this suit are some of the tastiest morsels of music rivalry stories that have ever been dished out. 

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  • Photo: Some Kind Of Monster / Paramount

    The Band Requested $100,000 Per Copyright Violation

    Metallica's lawsuit against Napster was a shock to many young people using the peer-to-peer service. The band didn't sue for a blanket amount of money; instead, they sued the service for $100,000 per copyright infringement. It's unclear how violations were tabulated (one violation per song adds up quickly), but there was no way the service could cover that kind of loss.

    Ulrich explained the high price of each violation by describing the work that went into Metallica's writing and packaging: 

    With each project, we go through a grueling 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.

  • Photo: Joi Ito / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Ulrich Said They Filed Suit Because Napster’s Actions Were 'Morally And Legally Wrong'

    After filing suit against Napster, the University of Southern California, Yale University, and Indiana University, Ulrich explained they were doing so out of a moral obligation. The drummer went so far as to compare downloading and trading of music to "trafficking in stolen goods." In the decades since the Napster debacle, Ulrich has said he regrets the way the band went after the service and its users. 

    While giving a talk at New York's Y92 in 2017, Ulrich explained: 

    We were all tape traders, and we were totally pro all this stuff. But the thing that blew our minds about Napster was we couldn't wrap our heads around, 'Why did nobody from Napster call and go, 'Are you okay with us doing this?' Because then it was a conversation. But they did this without checking in with us. And that was the part that we couldn't understand, that was where I think we could have educated ourselves better about how all of this worked and what it meant to people.

  • Photo: Kreepin Deth / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    Lars Ulrich Testified In Front Of Congress

    On July 11, 2000, Ulrich testified in front of Congress along with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds on the damage done by Napster's service that allowed users to trade files freely. The drummer compared himself and the rest of Metallica to craftsmen who should be able to set prices for their work and distribute it how they see fit. He said

    Just like a carpenter who crafts a table gets to decide whether he wants to keep it, sell or give it away, shouldn't we have the same options? We should decide what happens to our music, not a company with no rights to our recordings, which has never invested a penny in our music or had anything to do with its creation. The choice has been taken away from us.

    Ulrich then went on to explain how the loss of sales of Metallica's discography affected people below the line in the music industry, from studio owners to A&R people, even down to radio station employees:

    It is clear then that if music is free for downloading, the music industry is not viable. All the jobs that I just talked about will be lost and the diverse voices of the artists will disappear. The argument I hear a lot, that music should be free, must then mean the musicians should work for free. Nobody else works for free, why should musicians?

  • Photo: Raph_PH / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    There Was Immediate Backlash Against Metallica

    When Metallica sued Napster, there was an outpouring of support for the file sharing service and a massive, immediate backlash against Metallica. In 2000, Napster sponsored a tour by nu metal band Limp Bizkit. The group's singer, Fred Durst, spent the run-up to the outing making jabs at Metallica in the press. He told the press

    I would think the only people worried about [file sharing] are people that are really worried about their bank accounts... The Internet is here, and anybody trying to fight that, which would be people who are living by certain standards and practices of the record industry - those are the only people who are scared and threatened.

    Limp Bizkit wasn't the only band that showed support for the file-trading service. Artists as varied as Chuck D, the Offspring, and Chris Cornell supported the service, with Cornell saying:

    This aspect of technology is really going to bring a lot of different angles of life and commerciality out of the corporate world and give it back to the individuals.