A Brief History of Filesharing: From Napster to Legal Music Downloads

Back in the good ol’ days when music was a commodity purveyed by those privileged members of the recording industry elite, CDs were expensive and cumbersome, but basically unavoidable. Lacking both the sentimentality of vinyl records and the affordability of cassette tapes, they were often packaged with a generous amount of “filler” songs to pad the one or two marketable singles, and seemed to have no distinct advantages, save one: each track was an exact, digital replica of the original. In the years before the advent of broadband connections and mammoth hard drives, this advantage went relatively unnoticed. But as online technology improved and it became easier to transfer large amounts of data via the Internet, enterprising individuals discovered that CDs, as a digital media form, were tailor-made for the wired world.

Suddenly that “revolution” the Beatles had sung of decades earlier seemed closer at hand than anyone had expected. It came with the explosion of peer-to-peer (or P2P) applications which allowed listeners, for the first time, to exercise their own control over what songs were and were not worth paying for. And it came not with a whimper, but a really loud bang.

Enter Napster, stage left. Cobbled together by a scruffy-haired high school dropout named Shawn Fanning in the summer of 1999, the open-source software was originally intended as a clandestine experiment among 30 or so of his friends, but word of mouth proved stronger than secrecy, and by the end of its first week Napster had been downloaded by as many as 15,000 users. Characterized by the now-legendary Alien With Headphones logo, the program allowed users to swap media files – specifically music tracks – via a centralized server.

It was that centralization that led to its eventual downfall. Unlike the many subsequent programs which circumvented the need for a main server (and thus made their services essentially anonymous), Napster’s cohesive nature made it vulnerable to the legal attacks that began almost immediately upon its inception. Starting in 2000, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) spearheaded a series of lawsuits aimed at shutting down Fanning and Co. Their legal ground seemed unshakeable, their argument unquestionable: facilitating the free trade of “illicit” music files amounted to a violation of copyright law. In fact, at Napster’s peak in February 2001, it amounted to over 2.79 billion violations, the approximate number of files traded during that month.

By then the RIAA had whipped itself into a foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy, issuing statements like those by Ron Stone of Gold Mountain Management, who described Napster as “the single most insidious Web site I’ve ever seen.” Their line of reasoning soon diverged into two distinct schools of thought: the polarizing assertion that music filesharing is stealing – and therefore morally wrong – and the more pragmatic allegation that P2P software directly affects CD sales. Six years after Napster’s untimely demise…felled by a court injunction in July of 2000, its end was mourned with the equivalent fervor of a royal funeral…peer-to-peer programs have grown steadily, mounting opposition notwithstanding, in their variety and quality. But the charges leveled against them and their users remain essentially the same.

Increasingly, however, critics of the RIAA’s war on filesharing are speaking out against these previously undisputed claims. Big-name artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre have been the vanguard of the recording industry’s army, raising hell in the name of “copyright protection” and painting the legions of filesharers as common thieves. But in the midst of the firestorm, countless other bands have been quietly benefiting from the increased exposure that P2P programs provided, and despite legal setbacks, filesharing has inevitably fallen into its natural role as the next big publicity tool.

Capitalizing on the Internet’s anonymity and its tendency to facilitate the exchange of ideas and art forms, bands as prolific as the Ã?¼ber-popular Linkin Park are using the online community in a homegrown PR effort to generate enthusiasm for their music and live shows. In early 2000 a demo version of their track “Plaster” showed up on the website of StreetWise Concepts (a promotional company), and quickly made its way to the P2P networks. Online word of mouth almost singlehandedly catapulted the Californian outfit from semi-obscurity to Total Request Live, in the space of a little under a year. And in other corners of the music world, independent artists are banding together in support of the universal self-direction that peer-to-peer networks promote. One such group is the experimental, anti-pop outfit Negativland, who released a statement in 2002 supporting the creators of Morpheus, the heir apparent to the Napster throne. “We encourage and promote the free exchange of our own music on the Internet using file sharing programs and P2P networks,” they declared in its opening paragraphs. “We consider this new opportunity to share our music and ideas with others, and for others to share our music and ideas with each other, to be good for us, good for society, and good for art.”

This previously-taboo concept of filesharing as a means of contributing to the richness of the independent music scene struck at the heart of the RIAA’s debate. Suddenly listeners…and, in growing numbers, the artists themselves…were unwilling to accept the unspoken rule that music must be thought of in terms of buyer/seller relationships, in terms of intellectual property exchanging hands, in terms of transactions.

Mark Holser, one third of Negativland, points to the inherently interactive nature of the Internet as the means by which this paradigm shift occurred. With the advent of P2P networks came the erosion of the concept of music-as-property, giving listeners an unprecedented role in the production and distribution of new and innovative forms of expression. He explains its infectious power in terms of “personal contribution rather than anonymous absorptionâÂ?¦and it does this without a profit-making center of control or executive offices making decisions about its future. The difference consists of who and what is really in charge, and who and what it’s really all for.”

Indeed, for all the volume and reiteration of the recording industry’s intensely-moralistic claim that filesharing is “both wrong and illegal” (the oft-repeated slogan of RIAA president Cary Sherman), it falls somewhat flat among a markedly more skeptical target audience, an audience which has begun to suspect that perhaps the five major labels comprising the Association – BMI, Sony, Warner, EMI and Universal – might not, in fact, have the issue of artistic integrity at the top of their list of priorities. And though the industry has jumped, albeit belatedly, on the digital bandwagon with the introduction of “legitimate” services like iTunes, these concessions to the downloading public fail spectacularly to compete with the sheer diversity of artists and styles that can be found on even the smaller P2P networks like Limewire or BearShare. Such failures only serve to reinforce the popular notion that the recording industry, at its core, seems shamefully misguided, and utterly incapable of originality.

And as the moral column of the RIAA’s two-tiered platform begins to crumble, its economic counterpart is already well on its way. Assertions by the industry that an increase in filesharing correlates directly with a negative downturn in commercial profits were previously accepted as fact, despite a notable lack of dependable statistical data and an overreliance on circumstantial evidence. But in a recent report published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, economists Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman S. Strumpf deconstruct the RIAA’s standby argument that an increase in filesharing translates to a decrease in CD sales, with a first-of-its-kind study that directly observes the relationship between the two factors. “Downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates,” they note in the report, pointing out that many downloaded files are songs which the majority of users would not have paid for even if P2P programs did not exist at all.

In addition to being questionably motivated, the industry’s effort to unilaterally eradicate peer-to-peer software occasionally seems to border on the self-destructive: many experts feel that, by relying on such reactionary tactics, the RIAA has simply shot itself in the foot. Nicholas Economides, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, believes that their rashness will only eliminate their chances of profiting in the long-run from the P2P technology which is, quite evidently, here to stay. “Consumers will go to these alternative public domain programs and the record industry will end up getting nothing out of it,” he predicts. “With Napster, they might at least have struck a deal so that the labels could have made money on it.”

And nearly half a decade after the first ripples of filesharing spread throughout the online community, the industry still remains ostensibly poised with the gun pointed straight at their expensive calfskin loafers. But the filesharing public remains unswayed, and in the face of corporate swagger, they merely shrug. It’s a gesture that’s succinctly expressive of the collective opinion articulated in Michael Gowan’s paean to free music, Requiem for Napster: “You guys worry about the money. We’ll enjoy the music. Copyrights are for squares, man.”

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