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For Napster, Inc. (formerly Roxio), and the paid Napster music service see Napster (pay service).

Napster is an online music service which was originally a file sharing service created by Shawn Fanning. Napster was the first widely-used peer-to-peer music sharing service, and it made a major impact on how people, especially college students, used the Internet. Its technology allowed music fans to easily share MP3 format song files with each other, thus leading to the music industry's accusations of massive copyright violations. Although the original service was effectively shut down by court order, it largely paved the way for decentralized P2P file-sharing programs, which have been much harder to control. The service was named Napster after Fanning's nickname.



Shawn Fanning first released the original Napster in the fall of 1999. Fanning wanted an easier method of finding music than by searching IRC or Lycos. John Fanning of Hull, Massachusetts, who is Shawn's uncle, helped him incorporate the company. The final documents gave Shawn 30% control of the company, with the rest going to his uncle. It was the first of the massively popular peer-to-peer file sharing systems, although it was not fully peer-to-peer since it used central servers to maintain lists of connected systems and the files they provided, while actual transactions were conducted directly between machines. This is very similar to how instant messaging systems work. Although there were already relatively popular media which facilitated the sharing of files across the Internet, such as IRC, Hotline , and USENET, Napster was the first to specialize exclusively in music in the form of MP3 files. The result was a system which featured a large selection of music to download.

At the time Napster was released, there was a general perception that the quality of new albums had decreased. Many people said that albums contained only one or two good songs, along with many low-quality "filler" songs. People praised Napster because it enabled them to obtain hit songs without having to buy an entire album (or indeed, pay at all). Napster also enabled people to obtain older songs, copies of music they had already paid for in another format, unreleased recordings, and songs from concert bootleg recordings. With the files obtained through Napster, people frequently made their own compilation albums on recordable CDs for free, without paying any royalties to the artist/composer or the estate of the artist/composer.

Legal challenges

Napster's facilitation of illegal activity raised the ire of several major recording companies, who almost immediately — in December 1999 — filed a lawsuit against the already popular service. Napster was so popular that the same month MP3 Newswire recognized Napster as the largest grassroots effort the world had ever seen. The service would only get bigger as the trial, meant to shut down Napster, also gave it a great deal of publicity. Soon millions of users, many of them college students, flocked to it.

With its success, third-party applications appeared, including Wrapster , a program that made any file appear to be an MP3 file, and thus sharable via the Napster system.

Heavy metal band Metallica discovered that a demo of their song "I Disappear" had been circulating across the Napster network. This eventually led to the song being played on several radio stations across America. The band responded in 2000 by filing a lawsuit against the Napster service. The lawsuit was a failure, but 300,000 Napster users were banned from the service for sharing Metallica mp3s .

In 2000, Madonna got into the mix when one of her singles leaked out on to the web and Napster prior to its commercial release, causing widespread media coverage. Napster use peaked with 13.6 million users in February 2001 (source: comScore Media Metrix).

At the time, the lawsuit puzzled Napster users and supporters. To them, it seemed that file sharing was inevitable on the Internet, and it was not Napster's fault that people used the service to share copyrighted files. (However the initial versions of the Napster client software defaulted to sharing every MP3 on the user's disks, regardless of their copyright status.) These users viewed Napster as a simple search engine. Many argued that any attempt to shut down Napster would simply lead to people using a different medium to exchange files over the Internet. This arguably happened with various peer-to-peer software which became prominent after the demise of Napster: Audiogalaxy, Morpheus, Gnutella, KaZaA and BitTorrent. Similarly, many supporters of Napster were concerned about the media's constant use of the word "site" to describe the service, a word which seems to imply that Napster was distributing files itself rather than facilitating people sharing them.

Judgement Day

In July 2001, a judge issued an injunction ordering Napster's servers shut down to prevent further copyright violations. On September 24, 2001, the case was partially settled. Napster agreed to pay music creators and copyright owners a $26 million settlement for past, unauthorized uses of music, as well as an advance against future licensing royalties of $10 million. In order to pay those fees, Napster attempted to convert their free service to a subscription system. A prototype solution was tested in the spring of 2002: the Napster 3.0 Alpha, using audio fingerprinting technology licensed from Relatable . Napster 3.0 was, according to many former Napster employees, ready to deploy, but it had significant trouble obtaining licenses to distribute major-label music.

On May 17, 2002, Napster announced that its assets would be acquired by German media firm Bertelsmann AG for $8 million.

Pursuant to terms of that agreement, on June 3 Napster filed for Chapter 11 protection under United States bankruptcy laws. On September 3, 2002, an American bankruptcy judge blocked the sale to Bertelsmann and forced Napster to liquidate its assets according to Chapter 7 of the U.S. bankruptcy laws. Most of the Napster staff were laid off, and the website changed to display "Napster was here".

In the time since the original Napster was shut down, several other peer-to-peer file sharing programs such as Morpheus and KaZaA have been released. These programs have overtaken Napster as the primary source for MP3 sharing fans to obtain the music they want. For over a year, it was likely that the death of Napster (in its original form) would only cause a temporary slowdown in the growth of file sharing according to file-sharing optimists.

The central servers used by Napster made it a convenient legal target, although a program known as "Napigator" allowed the Napster software to connect to any unofficial Napster server. The central servers clearly indicated the presence of illegal activity, thus making Napster liable for not attempting to control the illegal activity. Other hybrid systems such as KaZaA and Audiogalaxy have also been attacked by the industry, whereas true peer-to-peer systems such as Gnutella-based Morpheus and LimeWire took longer for the music industry to get at.

Promotional power

With all the accusations that Napster was destroying the record industry there were those who felt just the opposite, that file trading on Napster actually stimulated, rather than hurt, sales. Proof may have come in April 2000 when tracks from Radiohead's album Kid A found their way to Napster three months before the CD's release. Unlike Madonna, Radiohead never hit the top 20 in the US. Furthermore, it was an experimental album that received little promotion and almost no radio airplay. As Richard Menta described in his article "Did Napster Take Radiohead's New Album to Number 1?" it was a perfect vehicle to test this theory as the effect of Napster was isolated from other elements that could be credited for driving sales.

By the time of the record's release Kid A had been downloaded by millions of people worldwide. The record industry braced for the worst, but then came the big surprise. Kid A not only broke the top 20, it captured the number one spot on the charts in its debut week. The record beat out the CDs of some of the most heavily marketed artists of the time including Madonna and Eminem. In the absence of any other force that could account for this success Menta declared this was proof that Napster was a promotional power.

Final fate

After a 2.4 million dollar offer by the Private Media Group, an "adult entertainment company"[1], Napster's brand and logos were acquired at bankruptcy auction by the company Roxio, Inc. which used them to rebrand the Pressplay music service as Napster 2.0. As of 2005, this new service has met with moderate success.

The peer-to-peer filesharing (or P2P) trend Napster started has shown no signs of abating after its demise, with new programs and networks picking up the torch. The ever-widening availability of broadband has made file sharing even more prevalent, since with increasing download speeds mean the distribution of entire movies and other large files is possible. In a very real sense, Shawn Fanning can be called the man who opened a Pandora's Box.

Cultural references

The 2003 remake of The Italian Job told the story that Lyle, a computer expert played by Seth Green, was the actual creator of the Napster software and that Shawn Fanning had stolen it while he slept. Bored of hearing the story over and over again, Handsome Rob (Jason Statham) tells Lyle : "I think it's time to move on, don't you? They shut him down, I wish they would do the same to you." He claimed that Fanning came up with the name because he was napping, not because of it being his nickname – Lyle then claims the nickname for himself.

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04