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Online music has come a long way. Have you ever stopped and wondered how complicated it was to get an mp3 file back in the 90s. The world was not yet used to subscription services. Then, in came Napster! The savior for music lovers. Suddenly with a single click, you would be presented with millions of music, albums, and discographic backgrounds of the artists. Napster had this unique way of creating music that would suit my moods. But was it legal?
Well, did we care whether it was legal or not? All we needed was to listen to your favorite music. This led many to ignore the legality and copyright issues behind the music. Napster has since been fighting legal battles with many music copyrights companies. How did it go?
Let's jump in and look at the life and death of Napster.
What Exactly is Napster?
Napster is simply a set of internet services based on music. In 1999, it was created as a revolutionary internet software peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing software that emphasized the sharing of MP3 encoded digital audio files, usually audio tracks. As the program became popular, copyright infringement caused legal issues for Napster.
Eventually, Napster's P2P file-sharing examples were preceded by more decentralized projects like Gnutella, Freenet, Soulseek and Bearshare. Other services like Audio Galaxy, Scour, Grokster, LimeWire and eDonkey 2000 did not live long because of copyright issues.
Where it all began…
Napster, the brainchild of Shawn Fanning, linked computer systems and allowed customers to access each other's mp3 audio information. It was not the first service of its type, but it was the one which went viral. Four months after its June 1999 launch, 150,000 people had signed up.
By February 2001, it peaked at a verified 26.4 Million users, with some estimates topping 80 million.
While the initial Napster service was shut down by court order, the brand remained, after the company's assets were liquidated and acquired in bankruptcy proceedings.
Background history of Napster & Legal Battles.
File sharing was not a new thing in 1999, but Napster was among the pioneers of sharing MP3 files. By the mid-90s, file sharing was already allowed online by networks like IRC, Hotline, and Usenet. Napster came and took over by storm by providing a user-friendly interface that everyone could easily use to download his or her favorite music on the go.
For a short period, Napster paved the way for streaming media platforms and turned music into a public good.
High-speed dormitory networks were overwhelmed, accounting for over 61 percent of external network traffic composed of MP3 upload files. For this reason, many colleges blocked students from accessing Napster even before the concerns about the liabilities to encourage copyright infringement on campuses.
The development team at Napster would spend sleepless nights to make sure that the App reached everyone and that it was compatible with almost all the available platforms at the time. The initial version of Napster was designed for Windows, which was the most widely used Operating System (OS) at the time.
In the early 2000s, a Macintosh version of the same was released. Black Media developed a Macintosh client version called Macster which was later acquired by Napster and later renamed Mac Napster client.
Prior to the acquisition of Macster, the Macintosh community had several independently established Napster clients. The most prominent was the open-source client named MacStar that was released in early 2000 by Squirrel Software, and Rapster by the Brazillian Overcaster Family.
The development and release of the source code of MacStar opened up Napster third-party clients across all computing platforms to enable users to distribute music without ads.
Napster created a sensation when it launched its online music store and encouraged users to share music videos and albums with their friends. The company was sued by several major recording artists and is currently fighting a landmark legal battle in California. Here's what you need to know about Napster and the lawsuit.
Let's review the background of Napster. In 2020, Ulrich testified in a deposition for a case brought against him by the Recording Music Publishers Association (RMA). At the time, he explained that Napster did not violate any U.S. Copyright law. Napster still argued that their technology, which allowed users to share music online, was legal since they had obtained an exclusive license from the master recording companies. Napster later settled with RMA over the issue of royalty payment.
But is Napster still legal?
Back in the 2000s, it appeared like Napster was facing more troubles than they bargained for. The whole situation was a huge PR nightmare for the music industry, which is already dealing with the fallout of the dot-com crash. So, the question remains - should music artists use Napster?
"Napster made a mistake when they started offering this service," says drummer Ulrich.
"The whole thing was a mistake. There is nothing legitimate about Napster's model, and I believe that the Recording Industry Association of America is looking in the right place at this whole situation."
Earlier on, a Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett and singer Neil Young had filed a suit against Napster, claiming that the company's model of a music sharing network was illegal and in violation of fair-trade principles set forth by the World Trade Organization.
A federal judge in San Francisco issued a ruling in favor of Metallica and demanded that Napster offer refunds to its customers. Metallica additionally filed a complaint against Jannick, the founder of Kompakt media, which represented Napster and several other file-sharing sites. Jannick, according to Hammett and Young, was also guilty of facilitating Napster's operation.
With Napster now out of commission, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett tried to put pressure on the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to act against Napster and other similar websites.
He formed a new company called Crawl Space and would seek the support of other record labels to form a grass-roots campaign similar to what ACT and RIAA have done in past years. The idea was to get record labels to focus on what the real issues were at the time: solving the problem of piracy.
The protracted court battle with Metallica is the one that brought Napster down to its knees. Dr Dre also filed a similar complaint following Napster's denial of a formal offer to withdraw their music from the service. Metallica and Dr Dre issued Napster a list of thousands of users who were pirating their music.
In March 2001, Napster settled the two suits after being shut down in a separate case by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. In the same year, Madonna's single called "Music" was spread on the web through Napster before it was official released. This led to widespread media coverage of Napster followed by its userbase peaking at over 26.4 million users.
Despite the heated court battles and all that, Napster stood firm. They continued to deliver music to its growing number of millions of subscribers.
In 2000, along with many other recording companies, the American music recording company A&M Records sued Napster on the grounds of a significant and severe copyright infringement under the United States Digital Millennium Copyright Law by the Recording Industry of America. It claimed that Napster's users violated the copyright of the complainants directly. That Napster was responsible for the violation of the copyrights of the applicants.
In July 2001, Napster was unable to comply and thus had to terminate its service. In 2002, Napster revealed it has become bankrupt and sold its properties. It was a sad end for a service that saved millions of Americans and others all over the world to access free music online.
The Fall: Napster's Shutdown
Lets look into the details of Napster’s Shutdown. To comply with the injunction, Napster shut down its entire network on July 11 2001. The case was partly settled on September 24 2001. Napster agreed to pay music producers and copyright holders 26 million to settle for previous, unauthorized music sharing and $10 million as a refund from potential licensing royalties
Napster sought to turn its free service into a payment scheme in order to cover these charges and thus limited traffic to Napster. They tested the move in 2002 with Napster 3.0 Alpha, using a PlayMedia Systems called "nap" safe file format.
According to several former Napster staff, Napster 3.0 was deployed, but licensing of major label music had serious issues. On May 17, 2002, Napster announced that the German Media group Bertelsmann would acquire its assets of $85 million with the intention of turning Napster into an online music subscription service.
Both companies worked together since the mid-2000s when Bertlesmann became the first leading label to withdraw its Napster copyright lawsuit. According to the terms of the merger agreement. On June Napster filed for bankruptcy. And that was the beginning of the slow death of Napster.
MP3: Good Old Napster Days.
A few decades ago, long before the online music subscriptions, we have today, songs would be released through streaming platforms. But this exposed them to piracy which was rampant back in the 90s to 2000s.
It was as easy as downloading music posted by others on Napster. We used to go for the free downloads mostly because we were young then and could not afford the subscriptions or buying the CD. It was easy to access them online.
Back in the days, music was only available in the form of albums on CDs that stored uncompressed audio tracks of about 700MB. Copying or sending such files back then was almost impossible. The internet speeds back then were too low. The dial-up connection would take ages before transferring data of that magnitude. A single 4-minute song would be approximately 42 MB in WAV format, and that would take over 4 hours to download.
Fortunately, the compression format MP3 was developed in 1993 and made it much easier for music to be transmitted online. It made it easier to rip CD music, store them in a hard disk, and share online with good quality of audio. Napster simply leveraged on this to develop a system that would enable people to share the music faster and easier.
I was relatively young back then, but I remember I had my collection of soft rock, hip hop and metal from Napster. The sheer ability to download music online opened me up to a world that I could never otherwise afford at the time. It encouraged me to try all genres of music. It was amazing how easy and you could enjoy a variety of music without spending a dime.
I had no idea at the time at the hustle that the developers were going through, in and out of courts. All I did was listen and enjoy the free music! I only came to understand the nightmare later on as an adult.
Now that I am older and wiser; I would not download music from sites with that level of piracy. I find satisfaction nowadays in supporting my favorite artists.
What was your experience with Napster back in the days?