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Where Commerce, Culture and the First Amendment Collide - The Napster Case
The Development of Napster

In the beginning of the 90's, most people had only two ways of obtaining music they liked - either by buying Digital Audio Compact Discs (CD-DA or CD for short) of their favorite artists, or by copying CDs or radio broadcasts on tape. The latter, however, was a cumbersome process which took a lot of patience, and the quality of the recordings was poor compared to the original. In the mid-90's, falling prices for Recordable Compact Discs (CD-R), burners and hard-disk drives opened up a new way of copying music: People could make digital copies of CD-DA tracks and store them on their hard drives or CD-R media. Since the digital copies were second originals, there was no loss in quality; however, the files were huge with an average size of 40 MB per track. Another quantum leap occurred in the late 90's when people discovered the ISO MPEG Audio Layer 3 (MP3) standard, an audio format developed by the German Fraunhofer IIS institute in 1987 to achieve high compression of digital audio files. Since the MP3 format compresses audio files to about a tenth of their original size with practically no audible loss in quality, it is ideally suited for storing and exchanging audio files. Soon, songs in MP3 format were available for download on hundreds of web sites all over the Internet. However, finding the song you were looking for on obscure sites or outdated search engines was still a tedious process that more often than not lead to dead ends.

In 1998, 18-year-old Shawn Fanning, a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts had an idea for a software system that would solve these problems: Instead of searching for MP3 files posted on web sites, he envisioned users sharing the files they had stored on their own PC's hard drives: "My idea was to have users list the files they were willing to share on a computer that they all could access. That list would then be updated each time a person logged on to and off of that computer", he describes his system. "A user searching the index would see all the files shared by users on the network and available to others on the network at that moment. In contrast to traditional search engines, the system I envisioned would be affirmatively powered by the users, who would select what information they wanted to list on the index." [SF00]

Fanning first drafted a design for his project. The real-time music search engine, later to be named Napster after his college nickname, employs a client/server architecture: A central server holds the index of all files currently made available by online users. Every user runs a client application that sends a list of their currently shared files to the server. Since the clients keep the central index up-to-date as long as they are online and their records drop from the database as soon as they go offline, the index is indeed a real-time list of all the files available at any given moment. However, Napster does not index files based on their content - the database only contains the names of the files and some information on the user's connection such as bandwidth and IP address. The latter is used to actually exchange files: If a user finds a song she likes in the index, she can download it directly from the remote computer - Napster itself does not serve MP3 files, it only provides the directory for so-called peer-to-peer transfers between clients. Initially, Fanning's goal was to build just a "proof of concept", to see if he could actually make the system work. Not only was he challenged by learning the technical basics (for example, he ordered a book on Windows programming from, but also by several conceptual unknowns: "The design required a networking infrastructure of servers and bandwidth in order to maintain large numbers of user connections. I didn't know if enough users had access to sufficient bandwidth. Other people were skeptical about whether users would be willing to share their files." [SF00] Fanning sent a prototype of his system to friends, who sent it to other friends. Their supportive and enthusiastic feedback encouraged him to build out the system.

Napster, Inc. was incorporated in May 1999, and a beta version Fanning released in summer spread quickly by "word of mouse". The user community has grown ever since, up to the rate of one million new users each week in the past four months, and now totals at over thirty-two million. According to Fanning, consistently over 800,000 people are using the system simultaneously, limited only by Napster's own network resources. Copying music has become as easy as logging on, selecting songs for download and playing them - for many computer-literate people, a much faster and more convenient way than buying CDs at online or brick-and-mortar-stores.

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