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Fanning, the only one of the four who didn't respond to requests for an interview, quit the media-apocalypse business early. In 2001, Napster shut down under the weight of lawsuits that claimed it was aiding and abetting copyright infringement. And in 2002, Fanning founded a new service, Snocap his attempt to take file sharing legit. With the cooperation of the record companies, Snocap was going to give consumers the power to compensate the artists whose work they downloaded.
But by then, free file-sharing programs were growing virally, and consumers were high on the rush of swapping music hard drive to hard drive for nothing. They traded more than 3 billion files in August 2001 alone. Attaching dollars to those transactions proved to be impossible. It's hard to compete with free. Fanning had created a monster even he couldn't beat.
So he stopped trying. Fanning's next project was a social network for gamers called Rupture, which he sold to Electronic Arts in 2008 for something on the order of $15 million his first serious payday. His current start-up, Path, which launched in November, is an iPhone-based photo-sharing service.
And Napster? It still exists. The brand was sold at a bankruptcy auction and then sold again, but it has never been restored to anything approaching relevance. It's currently operated by Best Buy as an also-also-ran competitor to iTunes under the slogan "More than just a music store."
The Pirate Who Wasn't
As the author of Gnutella, Justin Frankel was Fanning's rightful successor. Unlike Fanning, he got his payday early in the game. In 1999, after WinAmp hit it big, AOL bought both it and Frankel's company, Nullsoft, for something in the neighborhood of $100 million. That made Frankel a very rich 20-year-old. It also made him an AOL employee.
It wasn't a great match. With Nullsoft, Frankel's modus operandi had been to write the best software he could, then give it away for nothing. At AOL the business of selling software threatened to overwhelm the software itself. "The products that I worked on, it was very much like, We want to make this money out of this. We're doing this deal with these other companies, and so the product is going to do this as a result," he remembers. "No one cared about how users actually experienced it."
Meanwhile, Frankel was writing Gnutella in his spare time. It was a brilliant hack: unlike Napster, it was genuinely distributed, with no central server and therefore no off button for the lawyers to push. He posted it online in March 2000 with a note: "See? AOL can bring you good things!" But reinventing Napster did not endear Frankel to AOL, a huge Internet company that was trying to merge with a major media company, Time Warner, that was in the middle of suing Napster. He left AOL in 2004.
Then he did something funny: instead of glorying in the success of his creations, he walked away. He doesn't use Gnutella, and he never made a dime off it, even though 10 years later, LimeWire the most popular Gnutella client still claims 50 million users. "When I wrote it, it was primarily as a sort of, This is proof of what is possible. Let's not all go profit from it," he says. "So it made sense to not even have anything to do with it. It was more of a concept."