The bourgeoisie and the rebel Napster – the good, the bad and the ugly of the Millennium

Music makes the people come together
Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel – Madonna (2000)

Good: Napster showed how the Internet and the World Wide Web could be a collaborative space. It allowed surfers – streamers – to make their own mixtapes include even very old, rare or previously unreleased material. It laid bare the bandwidth problems at the turn of the Millennium, calling for investments in networks and load balancing infrastructure and software. Netflix’ and Youube’s video streaming bandwidth issues echo reports of system administrators in 2000 that Napster accounted for close to half of their networks’ total traffic. At its zenith, the peer-to-peer (p2p) network hosted over tens of millions of users worldwide.

Bad: Napster was made out to be the naughty poster child of illegal downloads. Ironically, millions of users discovered the web service due to the media coverage of Metallica and Dr. Dre’s lawsuit against Napster. Another outburst followed when Madonna’s “Music” too emerged in the Napster sphere well before its scheduled commercial release. But by July 2001, unable to comply with court rulings that demanded Napster to identify and block each and every copyright infringement, it closed down.

If 99.4 percent [blocked transfers] is not good enough, then this is a war on file-sharing technologies, not a war on copyright infringement. There is no way to assure that a p2p system is used 100 percent of the time in compliance with the law, any more than there is a way to assure that 100 percent of VCRs or 100 percent of Xerox machines or 100 percent of handguns are used in compliance with the law. Zero tolerance means zero p2p. 

Lawrence Lessig (2004), Free Culture: How Big Media uses technology and the Law to lock down culture and control creativity

Ugly: The essential question is whether Napster was an illegal file-sharing web service or rather a peer-to-peer browser, allowing people to search for content on other people’s computers? Picture your favourite music magazine being dragged to court over a classified ad for bootlegged concert recordings. Or somebody suing Mozilla’s Firefox for aiding and abetting illegal conduct on somebody else’s website…

Even though “Napster, the business” was driven into bankruptcy, the peer-to-peer network genie was out of the bottle and out of control. Other p2p services filled the void: Gnutella, Morpheus, Soulseek, Bearshare, KaZaa, LimeWire, BitTorrent… The global game of whac-a-mole shows no signs of abating anytime fast. It was a sign of the times that in 2011 what remained of Napster merged with streaming pioneer Rhapsody.

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Nikolaas Bellens