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Napster has music industry all shook up

The song-swapping software also has clogged university computer networks and has been banned at some schools.

©Los Angeles Times, published March 27, 2000


napster logoThe latest technological threat to the music industry is a program called Napster, which also is the schoolyard nickname of the 19-year-old who created it.

The song-swapping software has spread among college students at such an astounding rate that the transfer of music files has clogged campus computer networks, prompting dozens of universities to ban Napster.

The program's commercial potential is so evident that its creator, Shawn Fanning, was plucked from his college dorm room last year by investors who have placed him at the center of one of Silicon Valley's most talked about start-ups.

Napster has overwhelmed almost everything in its path, demonstrating how swiftly a relatively simple piece of software can move from the desktop of a teenage programmer into an Internet phenomenon capable of threatening an entire industry.

Napster makes trading music files across the Internet so effortless the recording industry considers it an unprecedented piracy threat and has filed suit to stop the fledgling company.

Fanning, who dropped out of Northeastern University in Boston last year to start Napster Inc., said he hasn't had much time to reflect. "But if I think about where all of this was six or seven months ago," he said, "it's just very overwhelming."

The Internet has empowered anyone with a good idea to have an impact almost instantly, said Sujata Ramnarayan, a media analyst at the Gartner Group in San Jose, Calif. "To use Bill Gates' words," she said, "innovation now happens at the speed of thought."

Trading music files across the Net became popular with the advent several years ago of MP3, a compression format used to convert music on CDs into reasonably sized computer files.

Napster's appeal is that it makes trading music files remarkably simple. The software, available for free on the Napster Web site, enables users to share songs they have, to copy songs they want and to search a giant database of music that grows every time a new user signs on. Company executives say there are "several million" Napster users, though it has been released only as a "beta," or test product.

Though most Internet users have never heard of Napster, it has spread swiftly on college campuses, where students generally have high-speed connections to the Net and increasingly view their PCs as entertainment appliances.

Karen Jackson, a freshman at the University of California, San Diego, said she and her dormmates have been fans of Napster since November. Inside her crowded room, plastered with posters of the bands Korn and Kid Rock, Jackson has connected large speakers to her PC. Several hundred songs saved in the MP3 format are stored and alphabetized by artist on her hard drive.

On a recent afternoon, she launched Napster to search for new tunes, "something acoustic and romantic for my boyfriend." The program pulled up dozens of offerings from across the world. She made copies of some Korn outtakes from a PC sitting inside the dorms at another university.

"I really sort of hate computers," Jackson said. "But I love music." She said that almost everyone she knows uses Napster, mainly because it's easy and free.

Previously, finding and downloading MP3 files involved using Web-based search engines whose listings often were woefully unreliable, then trading music files using arcane File Transfer Protocol commands or by e-mail.

In fact, Fanning said he came up with the idea for Napster after tiring of his former dormmate's complaints about the tediousness of downloading MP3s.

Armed with a programming guide from an uncle, Fanning created a prototype in weeks. It combined software for swapping files with a powerful search engine that updates continuously. The moment a user signs on, the songs he is willing to share instantly are added to the giant index. Fanning called his creation Napster because that was a nickname he'd gotten in junior high because of his curly hair.

Fanning's uncle, then running a small computer game company in Boston, recognized Napster's potential. He incorporated Napster Inc. on behalf of his nephew and began to shop the idea to East Coast investors. By summer, a fledging company was in place in San Mateo, Calif., and an early version of Napster was released on shareware Web sites such as Download.com.

Napster's soaring popularity among students has created problems for college administrators, who say the amount of data flowing across their campus networks has surged this year.

Fearing their networks would collapse, at least two dozen universities have banned the program.

"It's censorship," said Chad Paulson, a 19-year-old computer science major at Indiana University, which barred the software. "They've blocked a whole media source. They're just taking it away, not giving us any alternatives."

Paulson has started a Students Against University Censorship Web site and an online petition drive to force Indiana and other universities to repeal their Napster bans. He said he has collected about 1,500 signatures.

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A PC user can quickly search Napster’s database for an artist or song title and specify parameters such as sound quality and download speed.

But Mark Bruhn, technology policy offer at Indiana University, said he won't budge.

"Network services are not provided to the students for recreational activities," Bruhn said. "If 60 percent of our Internet connection was being used to distribute chain mail, we would have taken the same approach."

Napster executives, alarmed by the bans, are trying to devise a technical solution that would ease the load on campus networks. Meanwhile, the company is coping with a lawsuit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Napster is "taking an active role in piracy," said Hilary Rosen, president of the RIAA. "They help you catalog your files. They encourage you to distribute the files."

And it's true that many, if not most, of the 250,000 music files available with Napster are illegal copies of tracks by artists ranging from the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys.

But Napster executives insist that they are merely a conduit for sharing files and can't control users' behavior. Legal experts say the RIAA will be hard-pressed to win its suit because not all MP3 files are illegal.

The suits and bans are merely part of Fanning's frenzied new life. He said he spends the bulk of his waking hours writing code, rushing to finish a new version of Napster for its official launch this month. He said he usually arrives for work around 10:30 a.m., leaves at about 1 a.m., then spends a few hours in a nearby gym.

Fanning said he comes from a blue-collar Cape Cod family and spent part of his youth in a foster home. Recently, he helped his family buy a 1997 Ford Explorer with his new salary, which he said is under six figures.

Napster has no current source of revenue. But executives say they are exploring options ranging from advertising to selling music CDs. The company also is looking for a permanent chief executive, a job being held on an interim basis by Eileen Richardson, a Boston venture capitalist who was one of the first investors in the company.

Fanning said he misses his friends and family back East but is focused on building the company, and he seems confident it will lead to riches.

"There are a few other companies now that are doing what we're doing," Fanning said, "some of them even have better interfaces and different features. But we have explosive growth. It's going to be difficult to catch us. We have that buzz."

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