Mention ‘MP3 controversy’ to anyone over the age of 40, and they will probably think of two things: Napster and Metallica. But the conflicts surrounding MP3s involved a much larger cast of characters.
The upstart file sharing service and the comfortably well-established heavy metal band became best enemies in the year 2000, when Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich became one of the most outspoken musicians to accuse Napster of taking away their livelihood ‘without asking,’ as Ulrich would say when testifying about online piracy in front of the United States Senate.
Metallica’s steadfast anti-piracy stance became a target for other artists – and not just by other bands. On the internet, a popular Flash-animated cartoon show, Camp Chaos, posted an ongoing series of anti-Metallica episodes in which Ulrich is portrayed as greedy, out of touch, and obnoxious. The animated television series South Park also skewered Ulrich during a 2003 episode which harshly critiqued the backlash against illegal downloading. Dave Grohl of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters scored some cheap points with file sharing fans by publicly expressing solidarity with them. Other musicians were more utopian about the idea that digital downloads were going to revolutionise music by putting power back into the hands of fans. Public Enemy’s Chuck D appeared on television alongside Ulrich in order to debate the issue.
Metallica wasn’t alone in their dogged pursuit of justice against Napster.
Not only did the Recording Industry Association of America sue Napster (and win), but Metallica filed their own joint lawsuit against Napster alongside Dr Dre of N.W.A. Dre and the band won their lawsuit, and settled with Napster out of court – forcing the file sharing company to liquidate their assets and shut down for good.
Napster were down, but they weren’t completely out. After losing its many lawsuits, ownership of Napster changed hands several times, and several attempts have been made to relaunch the company as a legal online music store. With consumer preferences now leaning heavily towards streaming music rather than downloading and keeping digital files, Napster’s current owner has attempted to relaunch the brand as a streaming service to compete with Spotify and Apple Music.
With such a vicious reaction to the dawn of the digital music era, it can be easy to assume that everyone who ripped, downloaded, or shared MP3s was breaking the law.
MP3 scaremongering became embedded within public discourse. As the music industry was the first creative content industry to fall prey to online piracy, it would take a few more years before slick advertisements funded and produced by Hollywood filmmakers would attempt to scare the public away from illegal downloading.
Throughout Napster’s rise and fall a struggle ensued to ease the stigma of using MP3 technology. In fact, just five years before the MP3 received its name, in 1990, an international group of digital rights activists formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an institution that advocates for human rights online, educates the public about Internet-related abuses of governmental and corporate power, and provides emergency funding relief for individuals and institutions being unfairly litigated against in cases involving online activities.
Contrary to popular memory, there were vast amounts of legitimate online activity involving MP3s. Websites like the Internet Archive shared copious amounts of public domain recordings as MP3 files, and a worldwide network of independent musicians shared their creations for free via netlabels, with music often released via an open source, copyright-free Creative Commons license.
The most prominent of legal MP3 websites of the day was MP3.com, which began life as a resource for downloading MP3-related software such as WinAmp, then became an online repository for independent artists to post free music; it later unsuccessfully tried to take on the iTunes Music Store. It still exists as a division of CBS Interactive, functioning primarily as a nostalgic music blog – which appears to have not been updated since December 2018.
At the height of anti-MP3 hysteria, the EFF orchestrated a public awareness campaign, MP3 Is Not A Crime, which distributed stickers like the one pictured above, in an attempt to rebalance popular perceptions of the MP3,. While it was well-intentioned, it was vastly overshadowed by the media discourse surrounding the Napster case, and the MP3’s reputation as a legal technology has been forever tainted as a result.
Lars Ulrich still fields questions about the Napster lawsuit to this day, and remains forever ‘the guy who sued Napster’ – albeit with significantly less hair.
Shawn Fanning founded Helium Inc in 2013. It is an Internet of Things developer platform that allows users to leverage ‘hotspots‘ in order to earn cryptocurrency – so just random buzzwords, then. Obviously that good ol’ late ’90s Internet bubble didn’t burst for some people.
Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (actor/director Alex Winter) went on to make a most excellent full-length documentary about Napster in 2013 entitled Downloaded, which you should totally watch, dude. Here’s the trailer: