Metallica aren't enemies of the internet

Can the internet ever forgive Metallica for Napster?

Spotify

I'd love to quote the online reaction to yesterday's Metallica/Spotify news (Metallica like internet music now, and their catalogue is available on Spotify), but unfortunately I have to keep things family friendly.

Suffice to say, Lars Ulrich is a big poopyhead, the band are sellout melon farmers who suck Crocs in heck, and everything since Master of Puppets is a fluffing pile of poopy plops.

People on the Internet have long memories, and they remember how Metallica sued the MP3-sharing service Napster back in 2000.

Twelve years on, can we admit that Metallica were right yet?

Don't get me wrong. Trying to get a quarter of a million people kicked off Napster was a really dumb move, and it's why Metallica are so hated by some of the online community. But while their reaction was wrong, the reasons for it were solid enough: Napster was building a business by letting people nick musicians' stuff.

Unfortunately, Metallica ended up driving the getaway car.

Napster bad

The original Napster was never an exercise in internet freedom.

The overwhelming majority of its content was shared without permission, and the overwhelming majority of its users were only interested in that content.

The public image was of student Shawn Fanning trying to make the world a happier place, but from day one the plan was to make a lot of money. "We all knew from the beginning that this would be huge," John Fanning, Napster co-founder, internet entrepreneur and Shawn Fanning's uncle, told BusinessWeek.

Any business based on selling or broadcasting music has to have a licence to use that music. For example, Apple is currently trying to launch a streaming music service, but it can't, because it can't get the labels to agree on terms.

For most companies it's a case of no licence, no service. For Napster it was "No licence? No problem!" Napster was an internet thing, and internet things don't care about the rules.

How Metallica screwed up

Metallica were right when they saw Napster as a parasite. But they made a terrible mistake. They picked on Napster's users.

The story immediately became black and white: on one side you had The Man, who wanted to ban MP3 players, turf kids off the net and sue dead people for downloading. On the other side, you had the brave defenders of internet freedom. There was no middle ground.

Metallica broke the rules of rock. They sided with The Man.

As marketing mistakes go, that was a doozy. It turned file sharing into a noble cause, made Metallica hate figures, gave Napster incredible publicity and didn't so much let the file sharing genie out of the bottle as smash the bottle into pieces and throw it into the sea.

They were right, though. Fortunes have been made from facilitating copyright infringement. Since Napster we've seen an endless parade of services set up deliberately to make money from other people's stuff without paying for it, but structured in such a way that they're very hard to shut down.

I've spent more than a decade defending file sharing, because such services generally have legal uses as well as illegal ones - sharing Linux distros, Creative Commons content and so on - and the copyright industries have lobbied for all kinds of dumb and dangerous things. But it's laughable to say that all file sharing is great, or that the copyright industries are completely wrong, or that Metallica didn't have a point.

The problem is that since Metallica, it's become a binary issue. We know that loads of sharing involves unauthorised copies of other people's stuff, but we want to defend the minority who use it for positive things. So we have no choice but to side with the sharers against the governments and corporations who want to filter the net, kick people off it altogether or ruin people's lives for a few dodgy downloads.

It's not that the sharers are the good guys. It's that their enemies are much, much worse.