4.8 Case study 2: The implications of Napster

Napster was significant for several reasons:

  • It demonstrated Lessig's point about the way in which an innovation commons facilitates technological development. Napster was the implementation in software of a set of simple but ingenious ideas. It was created by a few individuals who had access to few resources beyond their own ingenuity and a facility for writing computer software. Because it could be realised via the open internet, it did not have to be approved by any gatekeeper. And it was phenomenally successful, attracting a subscriber base of nearly 60 million users in its first eighteen months of existence.

  • It was disruptive in two senses. Firstly, it challenged the basic business model of a powerful and established industry. The record business was built around the provision of recorded music in the form of multi-track albums released in CD format. What Napster revealed was a huge potential market for tracks rather than albums. It also revealed the potential of the Net as a medium for the distribution of tracks, something that the industry had up to that point ignored. Secondly, Napster was disruptive because it undermined conventional ways of protecting the intellectual property embodied in recorded music. Most of the music files shared via the system were copyrighted, which led the music industry to attack Napster as a vehicle for wholesale piracy.

  • It provided a glimpse of how the internet could evolve from the server-dominated Internet 2.0 into something rather different – a network in which the hitherto underprivileged computers at the edges of the network (‘the dark matter of the internet’) could serve content as well as request it. Napster showed that PCs on the periphery of the Net might be capable of more ambitious things than merely requesting web pages from servers. In that sense, Napster can be seen as the precursor of what we might call Internet 3.0 – a new system of distributed peer-to-peer networking.

  • Finally, it overturned the publishing model of Internet 2.0 – the idea that content had always to be obtained from the magic circle within the DNS system. Instead Napster pointed to a radically different model that the internet commentator Clay Shirky calls ‘content at the edges’. The current content-at-the-centre model, Shirky writes, ‘has one significant flaw: most internet content is created on the PCs at the edges, but for it to become universally accessible, it must be pushed to the center, to always-on, always-up Web servers. As anyone who has ever spent time trying to upload material to a Web site knows, the Web has made downloading trivially easy, but uploading is still needlessly hard.’ Napster relied on several networking innovations to get around these limitations: it dispensed with uploading and left the files on the PCs, merely brokering requests from one PC to another. The MP3 files did not have to travel through any central Napster server; PCs running Napster did not need a fixed internet address or a permanent connection to use the service; and it ignored the reigning paradigm of client and server. Napster made no distinction between the two functions: if you could receive files from other people, they could receive files from you as well.

In the end, the legal challenges to the original Napster led to its demise. Its critical vulnerability was the fact that the system required a central server to broker connections between its dispersed users.

The record companies succeeded in convincing a Californian court that the service was illegal and Napster was finally shut down in 2001.

But although Napster the company was quashed, the idea that it had unleashed has continued to thrive (and indeed Napster was relaunched as a legimate subscription-based music downloading company by new owners towards the end of 2003). So many users (especially young people) had acquired the file-sharing habit that Napster-like services have continued to proliferate, and it is said that more internet users are sharing music files now than at the height of the Napster boom.

4.7.1 The P2P concept

4.9 Case study 2: beyond Napster – the new P2P technologies