When I was in high school in the early 1980s one of my prized possessions was a well-worn copy of a Metallica demo tape called "No Life 'Til Leather." Metallica was an obscure metal band with no record deal and only vague prospects that it would ever be successful enough for its members to quit their day jobs. I got my copy from a friend who got it from a friend who was plugged into the underground world of tape trading--which in pre-Internet days meant investing in a double cassette deck to make copies and mailing bootleg copies around the globe. That well-circulated demo won Metallica a sizable cult following, as well as its first record deal.

Almost 20 years later a lot has changed. Metallica--which went years without having any of its music played on the radio--has released 10 albums, won five Grammy Awards and sold 50 million records in the United States alone. And trading music is easier than ever. Thanks to a popular Web site called Napster, all you have to do is download free software and you are a few clicks away from swapping songs with anyone in the world who has music stored on a hard drive.

The Metallica of 1982 might have liked the idea of making its music so easily available to anyone who wanted it, but the platinum-selling Metallica isn't so thrilled about the idea. In April the band filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles against Napster, accusing the Web site of massive copyright infringement. Three colleges whose data lines were used by students to access the site--Yale, the University of Southern California and Indiana University--were also named in the suit. The colleges promptly announced that Napster was off-limits.

In May, Metallic's drummer, Lars Ulrich, showed up at the Napster office in San Mateo, Calif., with an entourage of lawyers and 13 boxes containing the screen names of more than 335,000 individual users who have swapped Metallica music online--gathered by NetPD, an online consulting firm, over a single weekend. The band asked Napster to bar these users from its site, and the company has kicked them off. Yesterday Ulrich testified on Napster before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Napster is already facing a copyright suit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America, as well as one by rapper Dr. Dre. But Metallica has gone into this dubious battle with the same primal vigor that it once put into its music.

"We take our craft--whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork--very seriously, as do most artists," Ulrich says on the band's Web site. "It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is. From a business standpoint, this is about piracy--a.k.a., taking something that doesn't belong to you; and that is morally and legally wrong."

This is especially funny coming from Ulrich. In his pre-millionaire teenage years, Ulrich was an active participant in the underground tape trade. "I would stay over at his place for days at a time, making tapes of his records and sleeping on the carpet," James Hetfield, the band's singer-guitar player, recalled in the liner notes to Metallica's "Garage Inc." album. In fact, Metallica has even encouraged its fans to make bootleg live tapes at its concerts.

What, precisely, is the difference between Hetfield's camping over at Ulrich's and taping his record collection and someone using Napster to download music from the Internet? Speed and ease are about it. Of course, what might have been tolerable to the recording industry as fringe behavior suddenly looms as a real threat to traditional music distribution channels.

So far, however, both CD sales and online music sharing have been rising in tandem. Many Napster users say they use the software to sample albums and often wind up buying ones they like; others swear they'll never pay for CDs again but will still pay to see a band play. "I discovered Metallica while using Napster and I have bought 5 of their albums since," one user wrote on the site.

The music business is right to be scared silly by the threat the Internet poses to its usual way of doing business. But it will take a creative response from the industry--not a rear-guard phalanx of lawsuits--to meet the challenge of copyright preservation in the digital age.

"Metallica won't win this law suit," said another Napster user. "The only thing they'll manage to do with this is be branded 'sell outs' and have a hard time trying to sell tickets to their shows. To me, it looks like this is the end for Metallica as we know it."

It's a good point. Metallica seems particularly clueless about the Net revolution ("never been on any of these Internet sites," Ulrich admitted in an online chat with the band's fans). Now a band that has long written songs about oppression and resistance to authority has gone on record supporting government regulation of the Net.

Kiss had a song that went if it's too loud, you're too old. If you're filing a copyright infringement suit, ditto.

Michael J. Ybarra is a writer in San Francisco.