Depending on your point of view, June 1, 1999, was either the day the music died or the day it finally came alive. The launch of the peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing network Napster either marked the death of the album, copyright protections, and record stores … or it opened obscure musical genres to a generation of college students. Your pick.
P2P file sharing existed before Napster, but it wasn’t easy until Napster made its debut. Napster took its name from the playground nickname of creator Shawn Fanning, who shaved his head to guard against curly hair. Fanning shared word of his MP3-swapping software in a chatroom, catching the attention of entrepreneur Sean Parker.
The rise and fall of Napster
Together, Parker and Fanning launched the free service Napster. In less than a year, 20 million users were sharing files. At its peak, Napster had 80 million users swapping cult hits, out-of-print gems, and Top 40 hits. (Some universities even banned Napster due to bandwidth issues.)
But Napster also had powerful detractors—namely, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Not only Napster but also its users faced legal issues. RIAA sued 18,000 Napster users for copyright infringement before abandoning its individual lawsuit strategy. Most cases were settled out of court for a far smaller amount than the $150,000 per track fine specified in the Copyright Act.
The Napster party finally stopped March 6, 2001, when the company began removing tracks from its network to comply with an order from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In July 2001, Napster in its nascent form shuttered for good. Since 2001, Napster has morphed from P2P service to online music store to streaming service, but it’s never again achieved market dominance. Once Napster opened the door, iTunes, Spotify and the like came rushing through.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.