Metallica joins recording industry's attack on Napster

Rock band launches suit against Internet music downloads

By James Brewer
5 May 2000

The giant conglomerates of the recording industry have come by a new spokesman in the person of Lars Ulrich from the heavy-metal group, Metallica. In December of last year, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a suit against Napster to prevent the California company from providing the software which enables computer users to exchange music files across the Internet.

Just last week Metallica entered the dispute by launching its own suit against Napster and several large universities, charging them with violations of the Racketeering Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the law enacted in 1989 to prosecute organized crime. (The Clinton administration later amended the act to include the sale of counterfeit goods that impinge upon intellectual property.)

Metallica is also suing the University of Southern California, Yale University and Indiana University. The band has issued a statement proclaiming that the college students who use Napster's software "exhibit the moral fiber of common looters loading up shopping carts because 'everybody else is doing it.'" Many of Napsters' users are college students who use their campus network servers to store mp3 files.

Mp3 [short for MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) Layer III] is a file format that compresses the data size of digital music typically distributed on CDs to one-twelfth the size. A typical 2- to 3-minute music cut is reduced from almost 30 megabytes to about 2 1/2 megabytes. This has made the exchange of music files across the Internet practical. In fact, mp3 music has gained such popularity that already several colleges in the US have barred students from transferring the files because widespread copying of the data has clogged up their networks.

Napster is a server-based software which links users, allowing them to view each other's mp3 files and select them for downloading onto their own hard drives. The client software, which is fairly small, is downloaded and installed on the user's hard drive. Then the user can connect to the server, which allows sharing mp3 files with anyone else who is logged in at the same time.

The RIAA has a long history of opposing the introduction of any new technology that would allow consumers to copy music. The most notable battle was over the development of DAT (Digital Audio Tape). The recording industry successfully prevented the introduction of DAT recorders into the broad consumer market because they claimed that the technology would be used to illegally copy music CDs.

In its public statements against Napster, the RIAA has quoted a few well-known artists, but with noticeably tepid support. Several artists are quoted as saying, "artists should be paid for their work." The vitriol that Metallica brings into the debate is just what the RIAA needs. A clear danger arising from Metallica's suit is that it seeks to use the court system to force educational institutions into policing the students' online habits. Metallica's attorney has publicly stated, "Our focus is not on chasing students at this time, but if this does turn out to be technically doable and we find out that there are people, who instead of studying for finals are downloading thousands of files then that might be the kind of person we go after."

Metallica has subsequently handed the names of over 300,000 people to Napster, demanding that the users' accounts be disabled. In a publicity stunt the band's drummer Lars Ulrich delivered 13 boxes containing 335,435 user IDs listed on 60,000 sheets of paper. Napster attorney Lawrence Pulgrum said in a statement, "Napster will review the over 300,000 fan names that Metallica turned in as soon as possible." He said "if the claims are submitted properly, the company will take the appropriate actions to disable the users Metallica has identified," adding, "Of course, if the band would provide the names in computerized form, rather than in tens of thousands of pages of paper intended to create a photo op, that would expedite the process."

Intellectual property

RIAA claims to speak for the rights of artists against "pirates" who steal their music. Is this really the case? Since the beginning of this industry, copyright law has been used by record companies to steal from artists their life's work to make huge profits. Artists, in general, have had to either become learned in the ways of the business or hire professional agents before becoming "successful musicians." It is a matter of fact that money has dominated the recording industry since its beginnings.

The giants of the industry—BMG, Sony, Universal, Warner Brothers—have created, orchestrated and dominated a mass market. They seek to control every aspect of the creation and consumption of recorded music and sound. Their stock-in-trade is "intellectual property." This is the means by which artistic work is converted into money. But with the advance of technology, it isn't just the artists and their work that the companies seek to control. To ensure their monopoly over the continuous distribution of their product, they seek to impose technological poverty on consumers through total market domination

Now heating up the controversy are new programs that will antagonize the record moguls even more than Napster. Gnutella is similar to Napster, but it doesn't require a central server such as Napster's to function. Since it is decentralized it will be virtually impossible to eradicate. The conflict over intellectual property intensifies as the development of technology accelerates. This dispute is obviously not restricted to the recording industry. It encompasses publishing with a host of technologies, old and new, in the movie, software, book and "new media" industries. There is a flurry of news every day about the battles over intellectual property; it becomes difficult to keep pace with the events and players. For example, as this article was being written, rap musician Dr. Dre filed his own suit against Napster. (Not coincidentally, he has the same lawyer as Metallica, a Mr. Howard King.)

If we accept the premise of the RIAA (along with the movie industry and software publishers) concerning copyrights, users have no right to make any copy of a recording without the explicit permission of the owner of the copyright (the recording company). Worldwide courts generally enforce this interpretation of copyrights. It is necessary to step back from the fray of daily events and examine the social and historical roots of intellectual property in order to make an objective analysis of the disputes.

Copyright came into existence with the advent of the printing press, which paralleled the rise of the capitalist class. Until then, there was no need to restrict the rights of the public (readers) because they had no technology with which to reproduce the printed word. As printing became widespread, the state had to guarantee publishers protection from each other. Writers were restricted from publishing plagiarized works. With the advent of large capitalist publishing houses, it became customary for the publisher to become the owner of the copyrights by purchasing them from the writers, either for a flat sum, or for a percentage of sales (royalties). Eventually copyright law was expanded to include all manner of creative work and patent law was developed to cover inventions. (See WSWS article: "Intellectual property and computer software")

The basic premise of copyright law was that intellectual property was no different than any other form of property, and as such was exchangeable for money, therefore requiring legal protection by the state. Copyright law became part of the legal superstructure required by capitalism for its existence. As such, it fundamentally serves the interest of the propertied classes.

A socialist society would not permit the private accumulation of vast sums of property, intellectual or otherwise. Socially produced wealth would be owned and controlled socially and distributed democratically. Copyright law would be drastically altered in favor of the public good. Art would be protected as a valuable resource and artists would be funded by society.

Why should ideas be proprietary? Ideas, whether scientific or artistic, are a product of individuals interacting in a social environment and always rely on historical experience and knowledge. How can a "new idea" be extracted from the dynamic of social interchange and protected as property? To some, this may seem a ridiculous question, because it occurs countless times each day, but ideas become property not because it is rational, but because it is necessary to the functioning of the profit system. To illustrate the point, try to envision the vast expanse of musical variety contained in all genres of recorded music, old and new. Now consider how many copyright holders there are for all of that music. To help with the illustration, let me remind the reader that there are currently only four major record companies: Warner Brothers (of Time-Warner) which owns Elektra, Reprise, Atlantic and Rhino Records and their subsidiaries; BMG, which owns Arista, RCA and Windham Hill, plus hundreds of smaller labels; Sony, holding Columbia, Epic, Legacy, C2 and others; and lastly Universal, owning A&M, MCA, Verve, Mercury and other labels. Four copyright holders for the totality of society's musical culture. Is that rational?

The rights of the artist

Musical artists, like artists in general, seek a connection to the masses through their work. Most artists express a genuine empathy for the trials and joys of the everyday lives of common people. Reciprocally the need for music in our daily lives is basic and fundamental. It keeps us connected to each other. Musicians who want a mass audience generally must cede their rights and enter into contracts with recording companies, if they are lucky enough to get the opportunity. Because music, like all the arts, has been commoditized by the insidious domination of capital, artists have to struggle to produce work that is honest, healthy and meaningful, against the corrupting influence of the money culture.

It isn't accidental that the recording industry enlists those artists with the most reactionary outlook as allies in their selfish campaign. Artists who thrive on a genuine relationship with the public would do better to trust the listening community than to join the corporate attempts to criminalize them.