Once upon a time there was a struggling young California band. Its music was too loud and its image too unpolished for MTV. Its social and political messages were a little too disturbing for radio. But it built a passionate following among underground-rock fans by touring relentlessly, staying true to its message and encouraging fans to record its live shows and distribute bootlegged tapes as widely as possible.
Metallica, once copyright poor, is now copyright rich. It has grown from one of those bands only the hip and angry followed to become a major player in the music industry. Its 1992 Metallica (the “black album”) marked its emergence from marginal to central in the rock world.
But Metallica seems to have forgotten that it got rich through free music shared by loyal fans. Now the band is harassing and exposing its followers who still believe in the value of sharing and community. Metallica has filed a copyright-infringement suit against Napster, one of the many software services young people use to distribute digitized music files, a service that has attracted 2.5 million users since last fall. Metallica also threatened to pursue racketeering claims against three universities–the University of Indiana, the University of Southern California and Yale–forcing them to forbid their students and faculty access to Napster. Rap star Dr. Dre soon followed Metallica with similar actions against Napster and his fans who use the service.
Later this month, Napster will go into Federal District Court in San Francisco to defend itself against a barrage of plaintiffs, including all the major record labels and legendary composer Jerry Leiber. The plaintiffs claim that Napster is liable for copyright infringement because it enables thousands of people to share and copy compressed music files–known as MP3s–for no cost. The companies hope to plug up this leak in the music distribution system. They would like to distribute music electronically, of course, but in a format under their own control, under terms they dictate, for a price they can enforce.
There are several enterprises involved in digital music distribution–and some have been working out deals with the record labels. After a federal judge ruled in April that MP3.com’s services did constitute copyright infringement, the web company started negotiating a settlement with record labels that could yield up to $100 million in cash plus a cut of future revenues. But most of the attention concerning MP3s has focused on Napster, the company that distributes the software that allows fans to find one another and swap specific songs quickly and easily. Napster has a great origin story: It was invented by a teenage college student in Boston who grew frustrated with the sporadic availability of MP3s on the World Wide Web. In the past year, the company has attracted millions of dollars in venture capital, millions of users and more than its share of lawsuits.
While Napster has frightened the music industry and attracted the attention of every major news organization, focusing solely on it distorts the real story, which involves issues much larger than the fortunes of Napster itself. Even if a court shuts Napster down–and the company is at this moment fighting off a request for an injunction aiming to do just that–the MP3 movement will thrive. And even if Napster survives, it’s not so clear that people will stop buying CDs just because they can get free MP3s one song at a time. But regardless of the outcome of this case, the music industry will never be the same again.