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Court TV

Metallica lawsuit hoax floods Web

By Matt Bean
Court TV.com


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(Court TV) -- Radio stations and Web sites were flooded yesterday with news that the seminal heavy metal band, Metallica, had launched yet another lawsuit to protect its music from theft.  This time, the rock pioneers were purportedly suing a Canadian band called Unfaith for trademark infringement over the use of a "Metallica-branded" chords E and F.

The only problem: The story was a ruse.

"That's a hoax," Metallica's Los Angeles-based lawyer, Jill Pietrini, told Courttv.com.

Freelance commercial designer and aspiring musician  Erik Ashley, 29, cleverly concocted the scam which sent users to an MTV.com story about the suit, which included a link to a fictional response from the band.

"We're not saying we own those two chords, individually," said drummer Lars Ulrich in Ashley's spoof.

 "That would be ridiculous," the faux quote continued. "We're just saying that in that specific order, people have grown to associate E, F with our music."

Ashley even tossed in a barb from Metallica's lawyer, Pietrini, for added realism.

"They continue to shamelessly feature the two chords on their Web site song samples and we just can't have that," he wrote.

Exhausted after a day of fielding calls from dozens of newspapers and radio stations (including National Public Radio) as well as The Onion and Rolling Stone magazine, the Montreal, Canada resident told Courttv.com that he never expected the ruse to catch on.

"It has taken on a life of its own," said Ashley, who ran a spoof Web site, SpoofThis.com, from 1997 to 2000.  "Our server crashed 3 times today ... The hits are already well over 100,000 visits."

The viral spread of Ashley's ruse sent tremors through message-board communities, where some members were shocked, some nonplussed, and some incredulous.

Judging by many of the posted messages, Metallica's yen for lawsuits helped the spoof take wing.

"I'm not sure what's worse, that the story is a fake, or that it was actually conceivable that Metallica would do that,"  said one boarder with the nickname TANSTAAFL.

That was part of Ashley's motivation.

"We all know about the Napster issue, the perfume company, the tire makers, Metallica has sued them all," he said. "The idea behind this parody was to gauge just how much their reputation has suffered as a result of the suits. Would people go so far as to believe that something this extraordinary, this outlandish, could conceivably be true?"

Apparently so. A spokesperson for the band's record label, Elektra, declined to comment.

While Ashley's ruse was clever, it was not impossible to detect. 

Neither the MTV story nor the supposed Metallica response were hosted on the network's or band's own servers, but were distributed from Ashley's ScoopThis.com server.

And a quick review of songs available on Unfaith's official Web site (actually just Ashley's one-man band) would make even a casual listener skeptical of Ulrich's supposed claim of "confusion" and "deception."

Whereas Metallica sings about dark themes like death and suicide in songs like "Sanitarium," "Kill 'em All," and "Unforgiven," Unfaith's poppy Christian rock tunes feature decidedly un-Metallica lyrics like "I wanna be Jesus now/Let me be your Jesus now" over techno and guitar-flavored riffs. 

A quick search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's online database turned up registrations for Metallica branded footballs, Metallica-branded sweatshirts and sunglasses -- but no "Metallica-branded chords."

And, as one legal expert told Courttv.com, Ashley's notion that the E-F chord progression constituted trademark infringement, rather than copyright infringement, may not have stood up in court, either. 

Such a song structure issue "typically in the province of copyright law, which relates to any type of artistic expression fixed in a tangible medium," said Michael Friedman, an entertainment/intellectual property partner with the New York firm Jenkens & Gilchrist Parker Chapin.

Still, the scheme was clever enough to work, largely because Ashley carefully reproduced the design templates used by the MTV.com and Metallica Web sites. To the casual observer, the sites were indistinguishable from the real ones.

"Getting all of the links working was the hardest part," he said. "If you click on the option to post on the MTV.com message board about this story, the link would actually take you there to the real thing."

Ashley even quoted himself in the fake MTV.com story. "I thought it was a prank at first," he had himself say, playing David to Metallica's Goliath.  "Now I'm not sure what to think."

One might think Ashley's publicity would spur his budding music career, but he calls it just a "hobby." Ashley says he's more worried about finding a full-time job, and that the spoof will probably end up costing him money in bandwidth.

But it's a fair trade-off for him.

"I may be reaching here, but I wouldn't put it past Lars to actually approve of the parody because it exposes the Internet for what it is," he said, meaning the kind of place where even legitimate news sites might run with the story without a second thought.

"The real irony," said Ashley, "is that none of our songs use E and F in that order."


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