Metallica announced they’ll make individual songs from their catalog available from Apple’s iTunes Music Store. (Previously, Metallica only offered complete albums for on-line purchase.) Music fans remember Metallica’s famous anti-Napster stance, but worries about piracy don’t apply here: Apple’s FairPlay DRM prevents that.
This decision fascinates me, because it highlights an important tension in copyright law. There are several different justifications for giving creators exclusive control over their expression; the most well-known is based on incentives. By providing a (temporary) monopoly over these works, copyright enables creators to earn a profit on their art and thereby incents production of it. In short, even artists need to pay the rent, and helping them do so from their creativity prods them to supply it. (But, does this actually hold true?)
A second rationale for copyright is to arm artists with the power to control how their works are used: since creative expression is linked to our individual personalities and experiences, we want to ensure that expression isn’t used in ways that are repugnant to us. (Of course, this doesn’t keep critics from reviewing our work under fair use.)
Metallica’s equivocation points out the possible tension between these justifications. Selling only albums on-line lets Metallica push users to experience their songs as the band intended, in a given order and grouping. However, if you love “Enter Sandman” but never want to hear “Sad But True” again, you might be willing to buy the single but not the entire album. If the first justification for copyright holds sway, Metallica ought to offer to sell us any set or subset of songs that we’ll pay for. If the second is more powerful, Metallica should preserve their creative vision even if it costs them a bit of foregone profit. It appears that money has triumphed over art in this shift by the band – a case study for copyright policy? We’ll see.