Metallica ought to be stopped cold.
The band's efforts to identify and intimidate 335,435 fans and Napster users for alleged copyright violations are a shock. In the perfectly legitimate disagreements regarding the distribution of free music online, this action goes way over the top. It invades privacy, is a blatant act at intimidating mostly younger Net users, and sets a dreadful precedent for resolving the many issues raised by the Net concerning who can own, control and disseminate intellectual property.
This an issue for anyone who believes in a free and open Internet, not just music downloaders.
Yesterday, the band's attorney said his firm will deliver close to 60,000 pages of documents to Napster today, asking that the site block all the indidividuals named from its service. The announcement sent shock waves through the online music community. Napster and a handful of other music-swapping sites have allowed hundreds of thousands of computer users to open their hard drives and share music files online. People can remain "superficially" anonymous but Napster can track individual users to their computers. And that's just what happened: Metallica's Los Angeles attorneys (who also represent Dr. Dre in his suit against Napster) say they hired NetPD, an online consulting firm, to monitor the Napster service this past weekend. The company came up with more than 335,000 individual users who had made the band's content available online.
Artists are perfectly justified in worrying about how they will get paid for their work as the sharing of online music grows. But Metallica has legitimized a wholesale invastion of privacy, and a pointlessly punitive campaign. It's targets include many younger children and younger consumers who have no idea their online movements are being tracked, and who certainly have the right to pursue individual cultural interests without worring that they're being watched.
The implications of Metallica's bone-headed move (this from a group that markets itself as rebels) are awful. Parents, school administrators or political parties will be further inspired to hire consultants to track the movements of kids -- and adults -- who might be listening to music, reading books or visiting websites that are not-approved, or are controversial in some way. One of the miraculous things about the Net is that it has opened up all kinds of information to people who were previously denied access. Metallica seeks to reverse this liberation in the interest of more royalties.
Many people online will now feel justifiably intimidated about moving about freely on the Net for fearing that someone is watching and planning a court action or lawsuit. This chilling effect is particularly outrageous, since the legal issues Metallica professes to be worried about are already being threshed out in negotiations between the music industry and MP3.com and in courts in New York and Los Angeles.There is no reason to go after some of the Net's most vulnerable users -- kids -- or to establish a precedent that privacy can be wantonly violated and free Netizens intimidated every time some company, artist, or group is worried about maximizing profits.
Apart from all these other concerns, Metallica's action is dumb and nearly insanely self-destructive. Even music industry executives are beginning to concede that sites like MP3.com and Napster are helping bonding an entire generation to many different kinds of music, something that is good both for artists and their industry.
Metallica's fingering its own fans on Napster isn't a step forward towards artists' controlling their art. In addition to protecting their own work, artists also have a responsibility to protect freedom and creativity. Metallica's name-gathering is an ugly, excessive and noxious assault aimed at curbing the free movement of information and ideas that characterizes the Internet, while doing little to resolve the many copyright, commercial and other issues involved in the free music controversy.
Everyone reading this can name at least a half dozen alternative sites and programs that have boomed in recent weeks even as the music industry, Metallica and Dr. Dre have moved against Napster and MP3.com.
There is simply no justification for a band to go after hundreds of thousands of its own fans, mostly kids, for the purpose of intimidation. Said Metallica's attorney Howard King: "I don't know if it's going to put a chill on the user end, but it certainly is going to show other artists what they can to do get their work out of Napster."
Metallica and King both ought to know that the action will certainly "put a chill on the user end," to put it mildly. This issue is no longer about money and copyright.
Metallica is invading its fans' privacy, challenging the ability of others to move freely and privately about the Net and the Web -- perhaps the hallmark social, creative and educational feature of the Internet. The band's action will not improve the life or work of a single artist. It will advance the interests of the greedy and invasive corporatists moving aggressively to turn the Net into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a Disney theme park.
Artists have the right to fight for their interests. But Metallica's move against hundreds of thousands of music lovers is outrageous. It needs to be fought tooth and nail.
Step One: Let's Shut Down Metallica's attacks on computer users, not Napster. Stop buying the band's music. Urge everyone you know to do likewise until Metallica calls off its legal Rottweillers, leaves kids downloading music alone, and agrees to slug the issue out in court and other venues where it belongs.