Meet the Napster

Shawn Fanning was 18 when he wrote the code that changed the world. His fate, and ours, is now in the court's hands

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What he was thinking was that this is the application that finally unleashes the potential of the Web, the viral growth possibilities of the community, the transgressive power of the Internet to leap over barriers and transform our assumptions about business, content and culture. He just couldn't spit out the words to convince his fellow programmers that his idea could change the world.

Love it or hate it, that's what Napster has done: changed the world. It has forced record companies to rethink their business models and record-company lawyers and recording artists to defend their intellectual property. It has forced purveyors of "content," like Time Warner, parent company of TIME, to wonder what content will even be in the near future. Napster and Fanning have come to personify the bloody intersection where commerce, culture and the First Amendment are colliding. On behalf of five media companies, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has sued Napster, claiming the website and Fanning's program are facilitating the theft of intellectual property. Most likely the blueprint for the future of the entertainment industry will be drawn from this ruling.

Legal issues aside, Fanning's program already ranks among the greatest Internet applications ever, up there with e-mail and instant messaging. In terms of users, the Napster site is the fastest growing in history, recently passing the 25 million mark in less than a year of operation. And, as Fanning predicted, his program does everything a Web application is supposed to do: it builds community, it breaks down barriers, it is viral, it is scalable, it disintermediates--and, oh, yeah, it may be illegal.

For its users, Napster has become another appliance, like a toaster or washing machine. Call it the music appliance: log on, download, play songs. The simplicity of the program is part of its genius. Since he took only three months to write the source code, Fanning says he didn't have time to make it more complicated. He had to learn Windows programming in addition to Unix server code, which he had taught himself. It is exceedingly rare for one programmer to excel at client and server applications, but Fanning had no choice. "I had to focus on functionality, to keep it real simple," he says in his gravelly monotone. "With a few more months, I might have added a lot of stuff that would have screwed it up. But in the end, I just wanted to get the thing out."

The pressure he felt came from a pent-up demand for digital music in the late '90s that was going largely unfilled. Before Napster, downloading music was so cumbersome it was mostly relegated to college students with access to fast pipes and techno geeks sufficiently driven to search the Net for the latest Phish bootlegs. The digital-music standard MP3, short for ISO-MPEG Audio Layer-3, was developed by German engineering firm Fraunhofer IIS back in 1987 as a way of compressing CD-quality sound files. The technology made it possible to take songs from a CD and "rip," or convert them into MP3 files, usually in violation of copyright. But even in the mid-'90s, when faster computers and high-bandwidth connections to the Internet made it possible to seek and find MP3 files, ripping CDs was a tedious process.

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