The rise and fall of the Napster Empire |

The rise and fall of the Napster Empire

by R. Keith Rugg, Tribune wire editor

‘Rise and fall of the Napster empire.’ Hmmmm. Nice title, but not quite accurate. That phrase evokes an image of a society growing and declining over the course of generations. However, if one insists on a classical reference in order to capture the flavor of the Napster saga, then a nod to Alexander the Great would be more appropriate. Because, after all, Napster isn’t really about an empire. It is about one young man, Shawn Fanning, who, like Alexander of Macedonia, has had an incredible influence on the world. Even the name of the company reflects this; ‘Napster’ was Shawn’s nickname among friends and in Internet chatrooms.

Here’s the Napster story in a nutshell; Shawn was struck with inspiration, had an ephiphany, listened to a muse. He wondered if he could churn out some software that would let a community of music fans pick through each others lists of music that was stored on their computers, and swap songs with each other over the Internet. These digitally -stored songs are known as MP3s, and they worry the heck out of the recording industry.

The Recording Artists Industry Association of America had earlier tried to get the courts to ban MP3 players, but lost. Within just a few months of the formation of, while still operating on a beta version, the startup was hit by a lawsuit from the ever vigilant RIAA. The suit claimed that the site was facilitating copyright infringement. In July of 2000, a U.S. District Court granted an injunction against Napster. A federal appeals court stayed the injunction within two days, and the case finally ended up before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, Napster has been trying to work out a deal with the industry. In October, Bertellsman Inc. a German entertainment company announced a plan to work out a subscriber-based system with Napster, one that would financially compensate the musicians whose music was uploaded through the site. But the industry as a whole either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, work things out with Napster, and continued to press the injunction.

This past Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals announced its verdict. The entire text of the decision is available at, but the essence of it is that the appeals court pretty much agrees with the district court; people who upload their MP3 lists are violating distribution rights, and those who download MP3s are violating reproduction rights. The appeals court did, however, tell the district court to rewrite the injunction so that Napster can stay legal by stopping the transfer of copyright protected music. Napster, though, has claimed that this is practically impossible, and that even with this concession, the injunction could effectively kill the company.

Napster is now in a holding pattern, vowing to continue to work toward an industry-supported system, and to continue its court fight. But there is the very real possibility that this decision will kill the internet company. Napster itself has asserted that for the injunction to stand, even modified as required by the appeals court, would mean the closure of the site.

But ultimately, the fate of the actual Web site is not really important, not while Shawn Fanning is still out there. This is a guy who wrote a seriously influential and innovative piece of software while still in his teens. Just think of what he could come up with in the near future. To complete the classical reference theme from the lead paragraph (as required by journalistic law,) it is as if Alexander the Great had not died in his mid-thirties. Imagine, instead, what might have happened if young Alexander had just had his armies taken away from him and been sent home to Macedonia. You can bet that history would have had a whole lot more to say about his life, just as you can bet that we will be hearing a whole lot more about the accomplishments of Shawn Fanning in the years to come.

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