Meet the Napster

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The Napster Kid: Shawn Fanning terrorized an industry. Will he be able to go on?

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The criterion for an injunction is, among other things, that the plaintiff should be able to prove that irreparable harm is going to occur between now and the completion of the case. That may not be so easy. Although Napster might seem to be taking sales away from the record companies, CD sales have actually increased in the Napster era--by $500 million this year alone.

If the injunction is upheld, Napster may be forced to fold. By the time the case reaches the Supreme Court, as it is likely to do, the company may be only a hazy memory in most computer users' minds. On the other hand, if Napster staves off the injunction, then the likelihood of a settlement with the record industry increases considerably. "Remember, as a lawyer I may be interested in this case because it raises policy issues," says Boies, "But from the client standpoint, what they want to do is get on with their business."

One of the great ironies of the Napster affair is that there really isn't a business, not yet. And if Fanning loses this case, there never will be a business, at least not for this P2P company. By the time the case reaches a final verdict, in six months or a year, some other hotshot P2P site--Gnutella, perhaps, or Freenet--might have become flavor of the month. Napster, for all the storm and fury it has engendered, could be remembered as a peculiar millennial trend--like those little chrome scooters--rather than an epochal event.

As the creator of Napster, Fanning has reached a level of fame unprecedented for a 19-year-old who is neither a sports hero nor a pop star. He's been on the cover of FORTUNE, BusinessWeek, Forbes and the Industry Standard and has been profiled just about everywhere else. His name and his face--those piercing blue eyes, wide cheeks and stolid expression under the ever present University of Michigan baseball cap--have become synonymous with the promise of the Internet to empower computer users and the possibility that some kiddie-punk programmer will destroy entire industries. Strangers pick him out at the mall buying a burrito or watching a San Francisco Giants game or just driving around in his newly customized Mazda RX-7. He introduced Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards. Nike has offered him a shoe deal.

For all that, Fanning has been unable to capitalize fully on his fame and notoriety. While he is pulling down a high five-figure salary as lead programmer of client applications for Napster and owns 9% of the company, so far that 9% has proved essentially worthless, since the company is still privately held.

He lives frugally--as do more than a few billionaires in Silicon Valley--sharing a two-bedroom San Mateo apartment and a 6-ft.-wide-screen Mitsubishi television with co-Napsterite Sean Parker. The tables are strewn with old pizza boxes, empty Coke cans and, Napster notwithstanding, actual digital discs, both video and audio. The furniture is rented, the brown sofa often serving as a crash site for Fanning's 13-year-old brother Raymond, who is teaching himself to code while he stays with Fanning. They have never bothered to get a phone line installed; the cell phone works just fine.

There is still the air of the jock about Fanning, an easy-going, wide-stepping stride and upper-body muscularity that seem out of place on a programmer. He eschews carbohydrates and hits the gym most evenings, as if bulking up for his showdown with the record industry. And a few afternoons a week he plays basketball in the Oracle gymnasium up the road from Napster's Redwood City offices. He doesn't like to admit it, but at least one co-worker confirms that he is usually the best player on the court.

Shawn Fanning has become surprisingly thoughtful and well spoken--perhaps because, being at the center of an epochal lawsuit, he has had to. Although his guard is up these days, as you talk to him, plucking a Led Zeppelin song on his Les Paul guitar, his answers roll out in complete, concise sentences. He has a slightly raspy Californian accent--he has already lost Massachusetts' stretched a's and long r's--about what it's like to be at the center of everyone's attention, and not necessarily ever to have wanted to be there.

"I don't think a day goes by when people don't recognize me. I mean, it's been good for getting girls. It's a great way to break the ice--'Hey, I'm the Napster guy'--but it's hard to move past that."

He has a girlfriend now, a fellow 19-year-old who he is sure likes him for him and not for Napster. He won't give her name, and most of his co-workers don't even know about her. "When I'm around her," Fanning says, "I don't have to think about the press or about Napster."

Since the lawsuit began, Napster has become enveloped in something of a siege mentality, an us-vs.-them attitude toward the record labels and the press that has forced Fanning to retreat even farther into his shell. He has to monitor carefully what he says to whom and even what clothes he wears. "The cdc [the Cult of the Dead Cow, a hacker collective] guys sent me a shirt, and the lawyers told me I shouldn't wear it," he says. "It's just so tightly controlled."

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