Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 13:23 UK

Napster: 10 years of change

By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News

CD and Napster webpage, AP
The original Napster made it easy to share digital music among friends

In June 1999 a US teenager wrote a computer program that turned the music industry on its head, and created shockwaves that are still being felt by the global entertainment business a decade later.

His name is Shawn Fanning and the program was Napster.

As a 19-year-old undergraduate in Boston, Fanning's program let friends connect and share music on their computers. Initially, it seemed innocuous but Napster unleashed a social, technical and commercial revolution.

By letting friends swap MP3 tracks, perfect digital copies of music, Napster made the casual copying and exchanging of music among friends into a global, automated and simple process that threatened the music industry, whose business model was in no way geared, or even prepared, for the digital online age.

"It feels like such a long time ago," Fanning says. "It seemed like the world was much simpler back then; the net was a lot simpler; a large majority of people I was close to were not interested in the internet."

Music explosion

Napster allowed connected users to share the MP3 contents of their hard drives, using peer-to-peer technology to move the files from one machine to another.

When I look back, I really don't regret anything.
Shawn Fanning

The program was the first mainstream peer-to-peer technology and a giant wake up call for the music industry, particularly record labels, who had not come to terms with the impact the net would have on their business models.

In a few months, Napster exploded beyond the university campus and was being used by 85 million people around the world, with a billion searches for music every day.

For the music industry, Napster represented the gravest possible threat to music and to the business model that had served it so well for almost 50 years.

Within months of the service launching, the Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster.

At the time, the RIAA said: "Napster knowingly and wilfully set out to build a business based on copyright infringement on an unprecedented scale."

Napster became public enemy number one for the industry and for Fanning, who had gone from being a lone developer coding in his spare time at university to trying to start a business using the technology, the experience was at times "overwhelming".

Fanning says the original intention was never to make money from his creation.

"In terms of the inspiration behind why I started building it - I had a number of friends really into digital music and they would find sites to download music but these sites would go up and down all the time.

"I realised there was a better way to connect people and their music together and a way to build it so it was accessible to those who were not tech savvy."

Legal lessons

Fanning says he was never aware during the development process that Napster would shake the foundations of the global music industry.

"It was a problem I was trying solve."

And he says he never anticipated the legal action that would see himself, and the company he had started, in the dock facing multi-billion dollar fines.

Shawn Fanning and Jonathan Schiller, AP
In 2001, Napster was ordered to stop letting its members share copyrighted music

He says: "My point of view was we were just linking people to content and trying to find a similar service to any web-based search engine.

"I was very surprised that when the lawsuit came down that they weren't willing to work with us in the same capacity as other search services."

Fanning says Napster was very keen "to be legal" but the offer fell on deaf ears.

"Early on I knew it was going to be a long fight; the industry wasn't going to cave in or work with us. They were really adamant they wanted their legal precedent."

After two years of legal fighting Napster was finally shut down.

"I always looked at Napster as a technical success and product success. The business side and legal side were failures, but the other two were widely successful," he says.

"My primary interest was in building a better product and one that would work and be reliable. I always felt a deep sense of satisfaction with what I had achieved."

Ten years on and in many respects the Napster effect is still being felt. While the music industry can point to a plethora of legal services and emerging business models, there is a widespread feeling that the relationship between consumers and music is broken in the manner many in the industry understand it.

Game change

Illegal file-sharing remains rampant, despite a host of other legal actions against websites and computer programs, as well as lawsuits against thousands of individuals charged with facilitating file-sharing.

CD sales are falling, while legal services have yet to make up for the lost revenue.

"I was very much a fan of the rewards to consumers in a digital age, where you could share music and explore new music. That's what I felt the industry needed to get their head around and evolve their businesses models," says Fanning.

Blood Elf paladin,
Shawn Fanning's latest venture aims to help gamers keep in touch

The perhaps unanswerable question is what would have happened to the music industry if Napster had not emerged: would we now have Rhapsody, Spotify, iTunes or Last FM?

As soon as the legal action against Napster finished, Fanning dived into his second venture - Snocap. "It was an effort to create a registry where anyone who owned a piece of content can claim ownership of it and the goal was to be able to allow free sharing of all the unregistered works, all the interesting live recordings and independent artists that want their stuff to flow freely."

Snocap failed, says Fanning, because the timing was wrong and he was unable to build consensus in the industry.

"I eventually burnt out on music and discovered the gaming industry. I found immediately that where music firms are traditionally fearful of new technology and things that could disrupt their model, games are built around new technology and success is driven by innovation."

Fanning is now general manager of a company called Rupture and the eponymous product is designed to connect gamers across different platforms and titles to create a more cohesive social experience.

Instead of having one "handle" on Xbox Live and one set of friends, perhaps a different one on PlayStation Network and World of Warcraft, Rupture pulls these threads together by being platform and title agnostic.

Rupture has now been bought by Electronic Arts, and has been soft launched.

"Building Napster, I was the only developer, there was no product team, and I did most of the design work in notepad. Working in a larger team and trying to deliver more complex solutions, it's a constant learning experience

"When I look back I really don't regret anything. Being a software developer, it really is about a journey, because the process of building a product is really satisfying. Often the achievement is not that important."

For two years at the height of Napster's fame, or notoriety, Fanning became a household name, and an icon for those in the digital age.

"I never sought, or craved the attention that came with Napster; it was the side-effect. I feel as long as I continue to work at solving problems, I'll be satisfied."

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