A new documentary called "Downloaded" explores the history and consequences of the file sharing service Napster. Bob talks to the film's director Alex Winter about how Napster sparked seismic changes we now take for granted in the music industry.
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BOB GARFIELD: As we just heard, the RIAA lashed downloaders with punitive lawsuits, but it also tried to stop file sharing at its source. The trade group slammed a lawsuit on the popular file sharing service Napster, soon after its launch in 1999. The record industry intended both to crush the service and to send its users a message. But the opposite happened. Trial coverage soon drew millions of people to Napster, particularly college students. Here is a young MTV reporter investigating the brand new file sharing bonanza.
REPORTER: So how many MP3s do you have on your computer?
YOUNG MAN: About 600.
YOUNG WOMAN: Maybe like 100.
MAN: Six or seven-thousand.
REPORTER: Come again?
MAN: Six or seven-thousand.
REPORTER: For real?
MAN: Yeah. They’re all legit.
REPORTER: How many MP3s do you have on your computer?
MAN: Probably like 300, oh yeah.
REPORTER: Where’d you get them from?
MAN: Truthfully, most of ‘em from Napster.
BOB GARFIELD: That clip is from a new film called Downloaded, which looks back at the file sharing pioneers who shook the music industry to its very foundations - the same industry, which in 2001, finally won in court and dismantled Napster. Filmmaker Alex Winter talks to the two Shawns/Seans behind the service, Shawn Fanning, Napster’s tech brains, and Sean Parker, the entrepreneur. The two met as teenagers on the Internet. They only met in person after they'd already decided to collaborate. Here's Sean Parker, the entrepreneur.
SEAN PARKER: And the door opened and he was standing, he looked at me, he said, “You look exactly like I thought you’d look.” And I said, “You look exactly I thought you’d look.” And he said, “Okay, great, let’s go for the presentation.” So we jumped into the PowerPoint and went through all the slides, and then got in my parents’ minivan and, and my dad drove us to our first – investor pitch.
BOB GARFIELD: Alex Winter says that much of what we think we know about the Napster story is fundamentally skewed. For instance, the record companies were not just bullies, blind to the future.
ALEX WINTER: You know, everyone sort of loves the idea of the kind rebel kid goin’ up against the man, you know, the David and Goliath thing. And the record industry and the movie industry and the government is not one entity that can quickly adjust itself to radically disruptive technologies, for all of the components to come together in a cabinet meeting, say, yeah, let’s do business with Napster and change the world, and then shake hands. That would never have been a practical reality.
BOB GARFIELD: In fact, the film does point out the irony, I guess, that taking up arms with the man were Dr. Dre, the hip-hop artist, and Metallica, the iconic metal band, both acts completely transgressive and yet, absolutely taking on the other set of bad boys, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker.
ALEX WINTER: For Lars and Dre to stand up against what was clearly the next equivalent of a rock 'n roll revolution took a lot of bravery. What really did them the damage was the manner in which they sent the message.
MAN: The heavy metal band Metallica has been most vocal in its opposition to Napster, and drummer Lars Ulrich even plans on delivering a truckload of tape to the company, listing people who use its software to share unauthorized MP3s, thus kicking off Metallica’s much typed Monsters of Minutiae-Filled Legal Battles Tour.
ALEX WINTER: In fairness, their point was never anti-technology. Metallica has put their entire catalog on Spotify. I think their point was more we got to draw the brakes and have a look at this thing because it’s a huge rock in the water for our business. And, frankly, 13, 14 years later, those issues remain. I think, in many ways, they’re worse.
BOB GARFIELD: We hear a lot from Shawn and Sean, Fanning and Parker, in the film. And, on the one hand, we see a lot of them rationalizing Napster, that it’s a peer-to-peer site for cultivating and sharing and, and community, not a piracy site. On the other hand, they’re very straightforward about the effect of Napster, the wanton plundering of copyrighted material. Do you think they, themselves, have ever come to terms with the irresistible force versus immovable object question?
ALEX WINTER: I think they came to terms with it back in the day. I met them in ’02. People have such a cemented perspective on the Napster story, due to the way it was in the media, that they just take it at face value that it was a piracy service and kinda, how dare these kids not acknowledge that. And I think the reality of it is for Fanning and Parker, it was never a piracy service. It wasn't.
A piracy service would be something like Knutella, LimeWire, Pirate Bay, sites that are specifically philosophically constructed with decentralized servers so that they cannot be shut down. They cannot in any way do business with the record industry or the movie industry. They exist outside the laws of capitalism. And that wasn’t Napster, at all. Napster was built on the idea of creating a business model and doing licensing deals with the labels. They never made any money. They didn’t get rich, like a lot of the torrenting site guys did because they were never able to do deals with the record industry.
BOB GARFIELD: It took Steve Jobs to do that.
ALEX WINTER: Yeah, it took Steve Jobs to finally break that wall down. But I don't see those boys, back at that time, as rationalizing. I see them as genuinely having created something that in their hearts was going to create a better, more consumer-friendly system for them and their friends and then subsequently the rest of the world. I think that they believed in that system wholeheartedly, and I believe that they still do, which is why Parker puts so much effort into Spotify.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, on that very point, I mean, we’re more than ten years out from the introduction of Napster. Sean Parker is now front man for Spotify, where a lot of the same issues remain.
ALEX WINTER: I think it’s unfair to kvetch about Spotify while iTunes basically pays the same as Spotify, and most kids are, frankly, on YouTube anyway. YouTube is a legal service that is using the same “safe harbor” clause in the DMCA that Napster was arguing in 1998 and ’99, the exact same safe harbor clause.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gives safe harbor to online platforms from lawsuits about infringing on copyright when the infringements are created by the users and not by the company itself.
ALEX WINTER: I think that there’s still a lot of anger, a lot of litigation, a lot of resistance preventing a much more monetizable system that we could all be living in, and will be living in at some point in the future. It’s where we’re going. It’s just been a very bloody battle to get there.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s a certain train wreck quality to Downloaded. You see the trains approaching [LAUGHS] one another head on. You see the collision. But you never really get to see a cleanup. Do you think the trains will ever be back on the rails, or are we facing infinite disorder in these markets?
ALEX WINTER: I absolutely do not believe that we are gonna live in chaos forever. I, I really don’t. You know, as dramatic as all this stuff is, it’s going to be a little bitty blip, as we move from the industrial age into the technological age, which has been occurring for some time.
I was very interested in looking at basically who’s in the eye of the hurricane of a revolution, and what does it feel like to be in that eye, and what are the perceptions of you while you're in that eye? I think that’s where Napster sits historically. It has enormous relevance. And that was what I was really interested in focusing on. I mean, surely, I couldn't focus on how to clean up the train wreck because the trains are still wrecking. And the reality of it is, is that the locomotion industry is over anyway, so we shouldn’t even be talking about trains.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, let’s get out of that metaphor. [LAUGHS]
Alex, thank you very much.
ALEX WINTER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Alex Winter is the director of Downloaded, which is the story of Napster.