How Metallica changed the face of streaming

Sixteen years ago, this week, the heavy metal giants sued Napster

On April 13th 2000 Metallica v Napster Inc was filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California. This case changed how the streaming business worked at the time and shaped the future of music.

Back in 1999 Shawn Fanning, John Fanning and Sean Parker created a peer-to-peer music sharing service called Napster. Users could see MP3 files on various computers connected to the service and were allowed to download them. This simple idea gave many people access to a wide library of music but it was illegal.

It’s against the law to share copyrighted recordings. What was different about Napster though, however, was the scale of the operation. If it was possible to get the music for free, would anyone ever pay for it again?

While the issue of pay was a severe one, and one we know still riles the artists up today, that’s not what made Metallica take action against them, however.

A leaked recording of their track “I Disappear” found it was onto Napster and was played on radio before its official release date as a result. This bothered them. In fact, it incensed them. The band filed a suit against Napster and drummer Lars Ulrich became the spokesman for artists against the distribution service.

Ulrich appeared before Congress in July 2000 and stated “Napster hijacked our music without asking. They never sought our permission. Our catalog of music simply became available for free downloads on the Napster system.”

This row gained attention around the world; the millionaire musician versus the start-up looking to making music accessible.

Napster lost the case as there was no way to spin what they doing and make it legal. They went bankrupt and disappeared from the face of the earth.

Speaking about the case three years ago Ulrich said he regretted the “shit-storm we became engulfed in” and that the dispute was never about money but “it was about control”. 

While this battle is long over, the impact of the results of the case are still visible today. This case paved the way for iTunes and the likes of Spotify and of course Tidal.