10th Anniversary of Napster This Month

Some may not know it, but June is an interesting month for file-sharer’s. This year, June marks a major milestone for file-sharers. It was June, 1999 when Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker released the first version of Napster – an application that has since changed the face of entertainment, the internet and copyright to name a few.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

What would it mean if files couldn’t be freely distributed online? For one, the whole idea of sharing viral video’s on a site like YouTube would be completely gone. You couldn’t listen to music via the internet, so naturally, music sites couldn’t exist and, arguably, there wouldn’t be much evidence to suggest that taking your music to the internet and selling them would be viable. Of course, pictures ranging from personal scrapbooks all the way to the often silly lolcats couldn’t happen. Then there’s the web itself since they are little more than HTML pages, javascript pages and PHP pages to name a few distributed freely via servers. Of course, what about email? They’re little more than text files with the ability to attach files to begin with, so e-mail would be out of the question – the same would apply to chat in general. Ultimately speaking, the internet would cease to exist without the idea of sharing data freely. So really, one could safely argue that file-sharing is loosely based on the whole concept of how the internet works.

Still, for over 10 years, file-sharing has spearheaded a debate that pitted companies against their own customers. The idea of file-sharing, for a time, was largely an underground movement – hardly known to the average person. Files were transferred through bulletin boards and chatrooms, but since internet connections at the time were dominantly 56k modems, the only things that could be transferred were video games and software (as some at the time hovered around the 1.4MB mark to fit onto a floppy disc) as well as pictures and books. Of course, it was only a matter of time before this phenomenon of file-sharing reached a larger audience and few would argue against the idea that Napster did just that.

If the Wikipedia entry is anything to go by, on June of 1999, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker released the original Napster – eventually, word spread quickly about the idea of free music. Thousands, then tens of thousands, and, obviously, the numbers just kept growing. Napster was, by no means, perfect. BitTorrent users today would very likely scoff at such a system in this day and age. Download speeds of around 4.5kb/s, having the file download cancelled or simply getting disconnected at 99% by the uploader, forcing the user to re-download the whole file again, entire file-paths exposed to the rest of the network and having the whole system centralized on a server. Not exactly the most robust system by todays standards. Still, at the time, the novelty of sharing one’s own music collection for the first time attracting people in droves and it was something that have sparked similar networks ever since – even before it’s shutdown in July of 2001.

While people flocked to the network like it was the next invention that saw moving pictures on a large screen, the concept also eventually attracted the copyright industry’s sights and their lawyers. In a famous picture captured in words, Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, showed up with boxes of legal documents as he helped famously sue the network into oblivion under the concept of copyright infringement.

Of course, what Napster also did was force the industry to rethink in general. Many noted that the industry had a choice – either embrace the new technology which had since attracted millions and monetize file-sharing before people flocked to other networks which had since sprung up, or declare all out war against their own customer. The industry ultimately chose the latter – a decision that countless experts have since labelled as one of the biggest mistakes the industry could have ever made. Creating the term “intellectual property” so as to counter the argument that nothing physical is “stolen” online, the copyright industry lobbied congress to pass the four letter legislation that would haunt the internet and innovation itself ever since – the DMCA.

Meanwhile, the now displaced users simply flocked to other networks like Gnutella, eDonkey2000 and FastTrack. Ultimately, FastTrack initially scored the biggest round of new users. While there was a limit to how high the quality of music was, the service known as KaZaA did offer a way to connect to a more decentralized network. Unfortunately, it also became the symbol of how the copyright war heated up between copyright industry lawyers and the consumers where it was individuals that had their IP addresses subpoenad and threatened with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages if they don’t settle out of court. It was all in the name of an “educational” campaign, something that the copyright industry in the United States still holds today.

While the network suffered file pollution and users moved on to other networks and the subject kept getting more and more complicated as the years went by, what of the remnants of Napster? In 2002, the company in charge of the original Napster was forced to sell off their assets as they declared bankruptcy. The original programmer since went on to open Snocap – a company that was also sold in more recent years to iMeem and his other company, Rupture, was sold to Electronic Arts (source). It seems as though the icon and the concept behind Napster was all that was left.

Napster was later changed to what had since become known as Napster 2.0. While there is some brand power behind Napster, the use of DRM in a way that saw music files get deleted the moment the user stopped paying the subscription had since arguably crippled Napster as a business in general. Lately, Napster has been trying to figure out how to keep the business alive with music subscriptions forcing the company into a point where staying in business has become a battle in and of itself while still trying to appease major record labels.

Of course, it’s legacy of what it has done to the internet is far greater than what any one company executive could hope to achieve. Several file-sharing networks have since sprung up. When Napster is brought up, it’s not too hard for the term “whack-a-mole” to be brought up on the subject of lawsuits or shutting down services. For a time, Kazaa and the FastTrack network filled the void left behind by Napster. Unfortunately, the party would only last so long as the copyright industry used several companies to track down IP addresses and sue individual users – tactics that many have since labelled as bully tactics or shakedown tactics. Meanwhile, other hired companies would take advantage of a weak URN hashing system that paved the way to file pollution (as well as fake/dummy files) Whack.

Since then, stronger hashing systems would be created like the systems seen on Gnutella and Gnutella2 networks as well as eDonkey2000. That left the industry deciding to go after the creators of the programs. Since then, the eDonkey2000 file-sharing client, Grokster and Bearshare clients. Whack.

Developers such as the developer of eMule had an open source client. So, targeting the developer would do little good as many developers have proven their enthusiasm to developing the code further through “Mods”. The industry had also targeted the eDonkey2000 network, the network that eMule connects to. Several high profile servers such as Big Bang, Donkey Servers and RazerBack 2.0 had been taken down. The response was to create the Kad network which is a serverless network as well as introduce protocol obfuscation to prevent ISPs from throttling or blocking ED2K traffic.

Meanwhile, BitTorrent also solved the problem of a centralized network being vulnerable to being shut down. The use of web “trackers” were introduced for developers wishing to create their own BitTorrent website. The industry has since gone after many like SuprNova and successfully shut down a number of BitTorrent tracker sites. Whack.

Developers since opted for the use of “Private” websites where users need an invite to gain access to the tracker. The industry responded by shutting down the then high profile BitTorrent website “EliteTorrents”. Whack.

The response was to not host anything in the United States, but the industry did manage to shut down OiNK in England and, more recently, SnowTigers. While a whack on two more individual sites, hundreds, if not thousands more still exist including the public site The Pirate Bay which is currently undergoing an appeal process through Swedish courts.

Throughout this long 10 year history of file-sharing, Napster’s legacy left quite a lot for internet users. An ongoing debate about copyright laws as well as a neat piece of technology that allows for unique forms of expression that appears to be more commonplace these days. One argument is persisting that seems to be closely tied with the resilience of file-sharing – is this war on file-sharing being a futile one. A question that has its roots in the question the industry faced that started it all – is it better to monetize or is it better to fight the technological changes of modern time? That question was recently raised by UK ISP TalkTalk when it suggested that the war on file-sharing is a futile one.

Artists, throughout file-sharing history, have found the technology to be an intriguing way to promote their music (Benefit, for one, rapped about Napster freeing the music for instance). Some might argue that TV executives have found it an interesting way to promote TV shows and create hype over an upcoming TV series by intentionally leaking a low quality pilot episode onto it. Companies such as Canada’s CBC have used file-sharing to promote the TV show ‘Canada’s Great Prime Minister’. Open Source software developers saw file-sharing as a means to save bandwidth so they can release their projects to the public at low cost. Entrepreneurs such as Kevin Rose used file-sharing to promote their vidcast, DiggNation to thousands of fans to help bolster the now famous site, Digg.com. File-sharing site admins such as the owners of the eMule website as well as MiniNova have set up distribution systems for people who want to spread content legally ‘shareable’ (with the help of GLP and the Creative Commons License)

Still, this side of the file-sharing tends to get lost with repeated rhetoric from the copyright industry that have suggested, some times more blatantly then others, that all file-sharing deals with pirated content. They’ve gone so far as to commission studies where they either cherry picked from, hidden or influenced the outcome to show a one-sided view on the topic. It’s those kinds of studies that have lately been heavily criticized for not being verifiable outside of numbers being “plucked from the sky”. The copyright industry have gone to influence policy making – even going as far as to helping to create a system of policy making on an international level to try and influence politics – that being the WIPO internet treaties which the industry, through heavily lobbies policy makers, pressure other countries to pass laws that would legally control file-sharing. More recently, ACTA has surfaced as well as an additional push to reform copyright laws that bend to the industry’s desires.

While the first push to create an international law was also to put in copyright management systems throughout the world such as DRM and TPMs, the more recent push through ACTA seems to be aimed squarely on the ISPs themselves – a target that seemed to be harder to go after in the first place. There have been sightings of such laws when the EU was pressured to put in a so-called “Three strikes” law for copyright infringement. While it never made it into the telecoms package, it did make it’s way into law in France and South Korea. Still, ISPs, to this day, are being pressured to fight internet file-sharing directly by the copyright industry and potentially indirectly through censorship tactics brought on by the government – the idea saw potential realization in Germany twice – more recently when German book publishers wanted to add RapidShare to German ISP blacklists. If targeting ISPs fail – which it no doubt will thanks to encryption, protocol obfuscations and anonimizing software to name a few – the likelihood of finding a new target is unlikely to surface. This falls back onto the same argument many have said for years – the war on file-sharing will fail miserably and accepting it is a better idea than fighting change.

Some have argued that the industry never even tried to monetize file-sharing. The reality is that the industry did reluctantly try by agreeing to almost all non-viable alternatives to file-sharing. Businesses were pressured into using DRM which ultimately crippled and bankrupted a number of music services. The only major survivor in the DRM push was iTunes, but even iTunes have distanced themselves from their DRM model.

All in all, it’s quite a legacy Napster offered in terms of giving a broader audience the file-sharing concept. 10 years later, we’ve seen an industry seeing their lawsuit campaign fail miserably (if it was to educate and stop file-sharing, it’s failed as file-sharing continues to this day) and running out of options as file-sharing has grown more sophisticated. DRM, TPM, lawsuits, laws, lobbying, skewed statistics and propaganda, international obligations, hacking, bankrupting, shutting down websites, busting release groups, forcing servers offline, blocking, throttling, filtering and file pollution – all failed or are about to fail. A portion of the copyright industry, the music label industry where the focus has been for quite some time, also faces something else – competition from the movie and gaming industry. At least in Britain, we know this to be a huge issue for the music industry. 10 years later and the copyright industry has wound up inflicting heavy wounds on itself while trying to fight a fundamental change in technology. 10 years later, file-sharing still has an arsenal to fend off the copyright industry. What’s left of the copyright industry? One last shot that will more than likely fail by controlling the ISPs and it will be a costly last ditch effort given that the ISPs are, at minimum, a multi-billion dollar industry.

What will we see from here? Who knows, but we do know that privacy and file-sharing are debates that are beginning to merge more and if the industry attempts to use blacklists for their own personal gains, it will still be a failed attempt to stop file-sharing given the wide open networks that still persist to exist to this day. You can’t blacklist every individual anonymous person.

While whatever is left of the actual Napster is starting to fade away, the fundamentally shifting concept lives on in a huge way to this day. Maybe someday in the near future, the war will finally end, but in the mean time, people are still sharing files to this day whether everyone wants them to or not.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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