Mixtape Music Vault/A Look Back at the Metallica v. Napster Lawsuit That Forever Changed the Music World

Here at Philly Mixtape, we certainly don’t want to go on a mission to make anyone feel old, but today’s Mixtape Music Vault just make you guys feel a little out-of-age sorts. For one, we’re about to use the word, Napster, and two, we’re going to use the word, Napster. For those that may not know, Napster was a pioneering peer-to-peer file sharing Internet service, founded by Shawn Fanning, that werked it out by sharing digitally encoded music as MP3 audio files. (Basically, it was all the free music you ever wanted….in just a few short hours!) What made Napster so significant, is that this was the first time this concept had ever been brought forth…and we lived for every aching minute of it. Once the company began making big waves, the heat was on as music artists were up in arms over their songs being downloaded for free. One of those heated artists, classic heavy metal group, Metallica, caused the biggest firestorm when they officially sued Fanning and Napster, Inc. on April 13th, 2000. While there are many reasons that this case was so significant, it was the first case that involved an artist suing a peer-to-peer file sharing…and it would also become the lawsuit that forever changed the vibes of the music world as we know it….

Before we get lost in this monstrous music lawsuit, let’s go down the Napster memory lane for a music moment. Launched in September 1999, The Napster program was originally a way for a then nineteen-year-old Shawn Fanning and his close friends throughout the country to trade music in an MP3 format. After putting their music thinking caps on, Fanning and friends came up with the idea to try to increase the number of files available and involve more people by creating a way for users to check out and trade each other’s files. When the service went live, it bulldozed its way to instant popularity, with the number of registered users doubling every 5–6 weeks. From its groundbreaking debut, Napster managed to draw more new users than any other online application in history. In fact, in February 2001, Napster had roughly 80 million monthly users compared to Yahoo’s 54 million monthly users. (!!!) At its pulsating peak, Napster drummed up nearly 2 billion file transfers per month and had an astounding net-worth of between $60-80 million dollars. 

When Metallica filed their infamous lawsuit against the file sharing company, they claimed that Napster was guilty of copyright infringement, racketeering, and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, this case was filed soon after another case was filed against Napster, the A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., which included 18 large record companies.  When Metallica front man Lars Ulrich read his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 11th, 2000, it explained that Metallica discovered that a demo of their song, “I Disappear,” which was set to be released with the ‘Mission: Impossible II’ soundtrack, was unexpectedly being played on the radio. He went on to say that the band was able to trace the source of the leak back to a file on Napster’s exclusive peer-to-peer file-sharing network. It was also revealed that the band’s entire catalogue was available for free download, which then led Metallica to argue that Napster was enabling users to exchange copyrighted MP3 files. The group went after a minimum of $10 million in damages, at a rate of $100,000 per song that was illegally downloaded. To help out with the case, Metallica hired NetPD, an online consulting firm, to monitor the Napster service. The consulting firm produced a list of 335,435 Napster users who were allegedly sharing the band’s songs online in violation of copyright laws. Once word got out about this, Metallica demanded that all of their songs be banned from file sharing, and that the users responsible for sharing their music also be banned from the service, resulting in over 300,000 users being banned from the file sharing service. Which, in the end, was sort of an epic fail because software was released that aligned the Windows registry, allowing users to rejoin the service under a different screen name. It should also be mentioned that the suit also named several universities to be held accountable for allowing students to illegally download music on their networks. These universities included University of Southern California, Yale University, and Indiana University.

So…do you remember how it all turned out? In March 2001, the federal district court judge ruling over the case, Marilyn Hall Patel, issued a preliminary injunction in Metallica’s favor pending the case’s resolution. The injunction, which was substantially similar to the one ordered in the A&M case, ordered Napster to place a filter on the program within 72 hours…or be shut down. The file sharing program was forced to search through its system and remove all copyrighted songs by Metallica, as well as Dr. Dre and several of his fellow artists, a large number of record companies, and the RIAA (the organization that determines album sales) also filed lawsuits of their own, which then led to the termination of an additional 230,142 Napster accounts. On July 12, 2001 Napster finally reached a settlement with Metallica and Dr. Dre after Bertelsmann AG BMG group became interested in purchasing the rights to Napster for a cool $94 million. This astronomical deal was blocked when Judge Peter Walsh ruled that the deal was tainted because Napster Chief Executive Officer Konrad Hilbers, a former Bertelsmann executive, had one hoop in the Napster camp and the other hoop in the Bertelsmann camp, and soon Napster was forced to file for Chapter 7 and liquify its assets.

While every part of this case brought front and center, it also generated a buffet of bad publicity for Metallica. The band’s music probably cost the band more money than just letting those people share the files, especially as the backlash most likely led to loads more people sharing the music out of a spirit of rebelliousness. The whole thing was a PR nightmare, leading Metallica being depicted as “grasping mega-rich capitalists” who couldn’t fathom the idea of not getting every last cent to which they were entitled, even if it meant suing their fans. In comments about the case a few years ago, Ulrich stated, “Napster fucked with us, we fuck with them.” In the end, the entire Metallica music hoops-holding was great publicity for Napster. (I mean, didn’t you appreciate the file sharing service a little bit more after this lawsuit was brought to light?) Mr. Fanning and friends got to cast themselves as avatars of a new generation–with new rules that “old people” just didn’t understand. And remember the MTV Video Music Awards from that year? When Fanning came out in a Metallica T-shirt and was greeted like some sort of messiah, bombarded with loads of accolades from the crowd. It was then on stage that Fanning told his newfound friends, “a friend of mine shared [the T-shirt] with me… I’m thinking of getting my own.” Priceless….

Since this infamous lawsuit, my how things have certainly changed in the music world. With the demise of Napster (and all THOSE other file sharing services..hey there, Limewire), in came iTunes, followed by the growing popularity of YouTube, then Spotify and more recently,Tidal, all coming forth with new ways to stream music…you have to pay for. While many believed that because of Napster’s rise, album sales began to decline, but being that since the early ’00s, the music world has seemingly been changing daily at a rapid pace, we’ll truly never know. What we do know is that this case is a very important part of music history that absolutely changed the way the whole entire world experienced music….and that is something that should never be forgotten.




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