Requiem for Napster

We gather to mourn the passing of Napster -- or at least mourn its evolution into a different virtual life-form.

The music-sharing site, in its brief few years of operation, became a friend to millions, but an enemy to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and its chief executive officer, Hilary Rosen. Napster has been finally and completely swallowed by its business partner, Bertelsmann. The music label had invested in Napster and was helping it reemerge as a subscription site, mending its wanton ways.

But Napster's legacy as promoter of music -- if not of copyright -- cannot be tainted by a whimpering end: Napster spawned a true revolution among music listeners.

Music Explosion

Brainchild of wunderkind Shawn Fanning, who himself once personified the dot-com boom, Napster affected how we listen to music, how we use our PCs and how we think about property. It brought geek concepts like "peer-to-peer" to the masses. It created a real use for broadband. It may have even made stealing culturally acceptable. It was a symbol of the new economy and a target of old-fashioned corporate ire. And in the end, it could not adapt to the new market it helped create.

But let's reminisce about the good days. When Fanning released Napster to the world in 1999, the concept of trading music files over the Internet was relatively unknown to most. Lee Black, who worked for the now-defunct research firm Webnoize, says the true genius of Napster was not that it let us trade music over the Internet, but that it made peer-to-peer networking so simple that anyone could do it.

The MP3 format made it possible to download music via the Internet. But Napster took both the format and the concept to the masses. The site catalogued files from millions of users on a central server so you could quickly see who had what you wanted, and it then enabled a seamless connection between you and a remote PC.

Perhaps no one in the music industry thought people would want access to millions of song files. And once there, those digital music fans discovered even more music by chatting with people who loved the same obscure sub-sub-genres.

Copycats and Copyrights

But with its great success (around 80 million registered users at its peak), Napster became an oversized bull's eye for the establishment. As the record companies took turns pummeling Napster with lawsuits, similar services and even better services came along. Gnutella, MusicCity (later known as Morpheus), Kazaa, and AudioGalaxy stepped up, adding video and software file-sharing to the mix. Some of them are still around, and they've drawn in even more customers. But Napster has remained the enemy for the music companies and the RIAA.

Somewhere along the way, the concept of what is yours and what is mine, and who should get paid for what, came to the fore. The courts and the corporations and the rock stars all had comments. Meanwhile, in the court of public opinion, people kept trading in greater numbers. It was as if they said, "You guys worry about the money. We'll enjoy the music. Copyrights are for squares, man."

The big music companies -- Sony, Universal, Warner Bros., EMI, and BMG -- have decided they need to get in on this action even as their lawsuits sought to destroy the movement. After much hemming and hawing, during which even more people got hooked on a free supply of unlimited songs, they banded together into two groups that have released music downloading services.

These industry-backed services lack two important traits Napster delivered: Whereas Napster was free and its selections almost unlimited, the official sites' products are not affordable, nor are their selections bountiful. This is called shooting oneself in the foot.

Tunes of the Future

And what of Napster's role in the CD-R revolution? Users were quick to endorse the benefits of collecting many different songs from many different artists and many different albums, downloading them from different people in different countries, and then melding them onto a shiny disc for the singular pleasure of listening. The pay music services largely didn't realize that this was something their listeners might like, too. The battle is on to make that operation not just illegal, but impossible -- instead of figuring out how to license the practice.

At one point, the company behind Napster proposed that if the record labels licensed their catalogs to the company and the company in turn charged every Napster user $5 a month for the service, the result would be more money than ever dreamed of. Unfortunately, that was not enough.

Napster tried to play by the rules later, after the court defeats and an infusion of cash from one-time foe Bertelsmann. The company even developed a beta version of a pay service that used a special ".nap" file and that could only be traded among paying users. But it was a neutered version of its former self. Even when trying to go legit, Napster had no friends among those who could grant the rights to music. And now we may never know if all those people would have made the record companies very, very rich.

Consider this: Napster has not had a working service for about a year, and we still talk about it. That's a legacy.

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Michael Gowan

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