Metallica vs. Napster: Intellectual Property FunStravaganza

November 10, 2009

Intellectual property, something one has created and is owned by them, is quite a hot-button issue, now isn’t it?  And rightly so – without legal protection for works we have made, anyone could take that work, claim it as their own, alter it, sell it, take the credit, and give us precisely nothing back for our creation.  Which would be bad.  This is particularly important for companies and individuals who make their income off of their creations, so, naturally, there are laws in place for protection of said people.  But what constitutes Intellectual Property, and how far can someone go with someone else’s IP before they break the law?  This was one major question involved with the Metallica vs. Napster case in 2000, a landmark case which helped set a precedent for similar file-sharing cases in the years to come.

The whole shindig began in 2000, when thrash-metal mega giant Metallica discovered a demo of one of their new songs, “I Disappear,” playing before its release date on the radio.  This, of course, came as a surprise to them.  How did it get out?  The band decided to see what was up, and they traced the leak back to a website called Napster, a Peer-to-Peer file sharing network.  There, they not only discovered “I Disappear” floating around the intarwebs, but their entire catalog was also freely available.  What would any good American do when they found their stuff being misused?  He would sue, which was exactly what Metallica did.

The band, led by drummer Lars Ulrich, sued the pants off of Napster.  They claimed Napster was guilty of copyright infringement, unlawful use of digital audio interface device, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.  They also implicated three universities in the lawsuit, who promptly banned the site from their schools.  After the initial suit, Metallica also hired a private firm to track Napster usage over a weekend, and with the results they demanded that Napster ban over 300,000 users.  Napster complied, but by this time other artists such as Dr. Dre joined in, forcing Napster to ban another 241,000 users.  As the bands had talks with the service, Napster collapsed under the pressure and filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection.  It would later be bought by Best Buy and re-emerge as a paid music download service.

Whew.  I’d say Napster got harpooned to the wall pretty handily there.  With the result in this case, Metallica paved the way for others to prosecute file-sharing networks, helping the RIAA to enforce their position against those services and create ridiculous anti-download punishments for those who disobeyed.

I personally agree with the verdict, but think that the consequences down the road were overzealous.  So, Metallica shut down a popular file-sharing network.  I agree with this because it was indeed a gross violation of Metallica’s IP rights, but, on the other hand, it did put a damper on some potential buyers of Metallica’s albums.  Some of those people were sharing simply to sample the music, and potentially could have gone out and bought it if they liked what they heard.  People like this, who didn’t see anything wrong with file sharing, cried out against the decision as iron fisted.  Yet, in reality, I think they were a minority and, while I do sympathize with those who had good intentions, by and large the Napster users were doing something illegal, and got called out on it.  So the site went through a much-needed reorganization.  A victory for IP champions.

Yet, later, I have seen things which caused my eyeballs to almost drop out of their sockets in disbelief.  One prominent example is when the RIAA sued a single mom, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, for $2 million in damages for downloading songs.  And they won the right to sue her for that amount of money – $80,0o0 per song!  That is just insane.  Madness.  But it’s something which may well not have come around if it hadn’t been for the Metallica/Napster precedent set nine years earlier, so not everything that came out of that case was rosy.  Come on, RIAA, I understand your feelings, but $80,000 per song?  I can only laugh inwardly at that.

But the fun doesn’t stop there, in that industry.  My field, the video gaming industry, has had its fair share of issues.  One instance was when Microsoft included vibration functions in its XBox system’s controllers, but thought that the technology was so ubiquitous that it didn’t bother to find out if any patents were involved.  Turns out, a small company did indeed own the patents for the tech and they successfully sued Microsoft.  Pays to do some research.



2 Responses to “Metallica vs. Napster: Intellectual Property FunStravaganza”

  1. tat7 said

    Hi Duncan!
    Your essay is good and interesting to read. I can’t really compare this topic to myself though, because I grew up in a different country and our music was totally different, as were the companies that made it. I like how you explain the situation, it is very detailed. Also your thoughts on why you agree with the verdict are easy to understand and thorough.

  2. Libby said

    If you put in the time, effort, and money into creating a piece of work then you should be able to reap the benefits from that regardless of what certain individuals think. It is happening more and more often when certain people spend more time and energy trying to scam the system than actually would need to spend if they would go out and get a real job. I remember the case of RIAA vs. Jammie Thomas-Rasset and the verdit was indeed ridiculous, however I wonder how may people stopped sharing music after that? Maybe she was just the guinea pig they used to make a point…Remember Martha Stewart?

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