Napster: Happy birthday and rest in peace

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Napster’s origin story begins with the advent of iTunes and the iPod in 2001; digital music became a more viable format than ever before. Users could now store their favorite songs on their devices without having to buy new CDs or cassettes every few months. As smartphones gained popularity and manufacturers started adding storage capacity to their devices, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify also entered the digital music market.

Humble Beginnings

By 2014, streaming had become the dominant means for consuming music across the globe, with 65 percent of respondents reporting that they listened to streaming services regularly. These changes weren’t lost on Shawn Fanning, who recognized an opportunity to reach a wider audience by making it easier for users to access unauthorized copies of digital audio files.

In 1999, it launched—the first peer-to-peer file sharing service designed specifically for Music file formats such as MP3. A game-changer brought millions of people together over a shared love of music…and almost got him thrown in jail in the process.

On June 1, 1999, computer programming student Shawn Fanning was studying for an exam while listening to the radio. He was frustrated that he couldn’t save the songs he liked to listen to again later, so he turned to his roommate, fellow student Sean Parker, to see if he could help.

In just a few hours, the two had created a program called Napster that allowed users to share MP3 files with each other over the internet. The only files available were ones that Fanning had downloaded from a free CD server that he knew didn’t have licensing agreements with the artists on the discs. Fans soon began trading songs with each other over the app. It got so popular that they had to create a directory of every song available on the network and assign each a unique ID called the “track name.”

Shawn Fanning and Shawn “OG” Patel: Inventors of Napster

Napster logo sprayed on a page
Markennamen: “Napster”, Berlin.

Shawn Fanning and Shawn “OG” Patel are often called inventors, leading many people to assume that they were the owners of the digital music service. Fanning and Patel were simply programmers who designed the software that made it all possible.

At the time of Napster’s launch, Fanning was studying computer science at Northeastern University. He’d previously worked as a programmer for several tech companies and had been trying to hack MP3 files since 1997. When the service became a worldwide phenomenon, Fanning was a 22-year-old college student who’d barely shared his creation with his friends.

Fanning and Patel both came from modest means and didn’t have the funds to hire a lawyer to fight the lawsuits that the peer-to-peer platform was attracting from record labels. They made a deal with investors to give up their shares of the company for $1 million each.

How did it work?

Napster allowed users to share their MP3 files with other users by uploading them to the server. When someone wanted to listen to one of those files, they’d log into the program and download the file onto their computer.

The software would then re-upload the file to the server, making it available to other users. Users could also create playlists of songs and share those with other users over the network. They were also able to chat with each other by creating virtual rooms, which were sometimes used to organize impromptu listening parties.

How did it differ from other music services?

Napster was different from most music streaming services in that it let users download as many songs as they wanted for free. Users could also upload MP3 files to the server, making them accessible to other users. Whether you were listening or downloading MP3 files, Napster only stored a list of track names for each song, making it nearly impossible for the site to track copyright violations.

The Birth of a Digital Music Empire

Napster was downloaded more than 50 million times during its first year of operation, making it one of the most popular software applications of all time. Napster had more than 40 million users sharing 34 million MP3 files every day at its peak.

While Napster was undoubtedly a hit with music lovers, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) didn’t like the fact that users were getting access to millions of songs without paying any royalties to the artists. RIAA president Hilary Rosen claimed that Napster was “outlaws” and that the organization was “going to bury them in a graveyard somewhere.”

The Fall of Napster

On July 12, 2000, Napster users were served with letters from the RIAA demanding that they remove the files from the Napster servers. The letters were followed by lawsuits in which the record company claimed that Napster users were violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) by sharing music that wasn’t theirs.

RIAA officials also convinced judges to issue restraining orders that prevented Napster from operating. Meanwhile, Napster investors had launched their own lawsuit against the site’s founders, alleging fraud. Napster was saved when a judge found that the RIAA didn’t have the right to issue mass litigation to Napster users because they weren’t the people who committed the copyright violation in the first place.

The court decision was a major victory for Napster, but it would prove to be their downfall in a twist of fate.

Final Words: A Cautionary Tale

Napster’s success was short-lived, but it had a lasting effect on the music industry. Digital downloads and music streaming services have become more popular than ever before, while CD sales have been steadily declining since the Napster days. The most lasting effects of Napster are likely the change in the public’s attitude toward music piracy and the erosion of trust in online services. Shawn Fanning and Shawn “OG” Patel have both expressed regret over their role in creating Napster. Fanning has since become a venture capitalist, while Patel works as a software engineer.

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