In 1998, it finally happened: After nearly five years of dominating headlines, magazine covers and airtime, the Internet got dull. The utopian promise that the Internet would spawn communities independent of race and physical attributes had started to seem numbingly naive; even triumphs over censorship rang hollow. (Who remembers the Communications Decency Act? Who cares?) No longer were quaint affinity groups awakening the world to the beauty of virtual communities. Refinements to Internet technology seemed narrowly focused on cryptography, online sales forms and cookies -- ways to safely and securely collect information about consumers and exchange money for products, be it in an online auction or at jcrew.com. Even the viruses were boring, since virtually all of them in the last few years would have died shortly after conception had people simply stopped using Microsoft Outlook.
Then along came Napster. Napster, in case youve spent the last six months reading Harry Potter books and have not gone online, listened to the radio or walked down the street eavesdropping on teenagers, is the music-sharing technology dreamed up by a 19-year-old named Shawn Fanning. Fanning formed a company with a man named Hank Barry, a corporate lawyer, called it Napster, Inc., and installed it in the Silicon Valley haven of San Mateo. Barry et al. then invited venture capitalists to invest money while the business figured out how to turn a profit with a basically free service.
As a business, Napster hasnt been particularly well managed. Copyright infringement was only one of the matters Barry -- arrogantly, I think -- failed to adequately address, but a big enough one that two former high-level Napster employees, Bill Bales and Adrian Scott, went ahead of the curve to create a copyright-friendly Napster called AppleSoup, on which users must pay a fee to unlock their downloads. More than anything, though, Barry wasnt great at not looking dumb. As Wall Street Journal reporter Lee Gomes recently noted, hes been a clod about the hypocrisy of Napsters closed-source technology policy -- Barry defends Napsters right to share other peoples intellectual property and in the same breath denounces those who would like to know about his -- earning him the ire of the open-source software developers who might have been his allies. Most egregiously, Barry nearly stopped the band Offspring (whose members have been vocal Napster proponents) from selling a T-shirt bearing the Napster logo. That he backed off only means that someone wise a convinced him that such a move would be bad for the future bottom line.
As an Internet cultural phenomenon, however, Napster has been a dream. When I first logged into one of its servers and started routing around for tunes, I had the same rush of enthusiasm I had six years ago, when Mosaic made it possible to view Web pages in all their graphic glory. This is what its really for, I thought, as I lifted a mediocre-quality live version of Nina Simone singing on Ne Me Quitte Pas from somebodys hard drive, or watched another user grabbing Loreena McKennitts Ce He Mise Le Ulaingt from mine. This is what the Internet is meant to serve: the beautiful, self-organizing anarchy of a free society, the open exchange of information between like-minded individuals. And the freedom with which users exchange music on Napster implies the free flow of other kinds of information -- once applied to music, the Napster protocol can apply to anything. The National Rifle Associations bluster to the contrary, the most important safeguard against tyranny is not the right to bear arms, but the right to disseminate and access information (free speech sounds too narrow). Okay, more to the point: Rifling through the chaotic treasure trove of Napster users hard drives, I was overwhelmed with the sheer thrill of great music. So after a long hiatus, I started buying records again.
In fact, forget the Internet -- Napster has had a salutary effect on the whole culture. Since Fanning introduced the idea and Napster went to battle against the record companies, we have all learned in detail how artists get screwed by the music corporations. We have seen the moguls of the record companies of America for the soulless beings they really are, and had a chance to see Hilary Rosen, the inscrutable, by-the-book president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), looking pathetic in the industrys defense. (It doesnt matter how Napster affects profits, she has argued, or that record sales are up -- its the principle.) Napster has revived the spirit of Jerry Garcia, caused Lars Ulrich of Metallica to turn on his fans, and given Courtney Love the chance to prove just how smart she is by doing the math on artists share of the industry dollar in a forceful, eloquent article on Salon. And it has made many people -- me, actually -- quite, quite happy.
Even Napsters legal problems were all right with me, because Napster is, just like the record companies who want to kill it, a corporation looking for profit, and there are many other ways to accomplish what Napster does without the companys help. Although Fanning invented a novel application for peer-to-peer file sharing, he didnt invent the concept, and Napster cant control it: Programmers have developed a slew of clones (see em all at http:opennap.sourceforge.net) as well as copycat protocols that facilitate the sharing of a lot more than music.
On July 26, Judge Marilyn Patel responded to a lawsuit by the RIAA by issuing a temporary injunction against Napster. Two days later, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the injunction nine hours before it was supposed to take effect. If the first ruling was a public relations disaster for the record companies, by the time of the second, Napster had lost, too. In those two days, the public had already been ushered into the post-Napster, post-Scour era. Every news service in the country had explored the utterly free, profit-motiveless routes around both services, including Gnutella, Ian Clarkes NetFree system, and, the least kludgiest of all, a little program called Napigator (http:www.napiga tor.com), written by a 21-year-old named Chad Boyda, which delivers a continually updated list of file-swapping servers, some 220 of them not under Napsters control. With no company running interference between file traders, its hard to imagine how any court could shut Gnutella or Napigator down, anymore than they could have shut down the Internet Relay Chat or AOL Instant Messenger.
The legal ambivalence over Napster has left hanging the question of whether Napster is morally right, for the artist or the company. In the abstract, I say its really no different than people making mix tapes for each other; in practice, of course, the speed and convenience of searching through other peoples record collections spells doom for business-as-usual in a way that mix tapes never threatened. The argument, however, is nearly moot: Technically legal or morally bankrupt, there is simply no way to police the sharing of MP3s. Despite the recent victory, Napster, with no viable business model in sight, will probably wither away. But the cultural sea change it triggered has upended the music industry for good.