Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Visionary or villain?  Idealist or thief?  You decide how to classify Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker after watching Downloaded, a film about the founding of Napster, its supersonic growth, and equally meteoric fall after legal attacks about copyright infringement.

In 1999, when Napster was founded, there weren't many people who 'got' the Internet, much less a peer-to-peer file sharing service.   Most people thought Napster actually hosted the music, rather than hosting a directory of where the music was and effecting an introduction between someone who was willing to share an MP3 recording and someone who wanted it.  (Actually one judge seemed to understand this completely, but he was involved in a case accusing Napster of piracy that Napster lost anyway.)  So were they fostering pirates, or were they launching a visionary new way of forming communities on the Web.

There was a definite 'he said, she said' feeling about the movie.  The record executives said Napster people were totally unwilling to negotiate.  The Napster people accused the record companies of exactly the same intransigence.  Personally, I find Napster's claims easier to believe, because they had no business model unless they figured out a way to charge and share the revenue with the record companies.  Thomas Middelhoff at Bertelsman actually got it and did a deal with Napster, but was unable to bring along the rest of the record labels and lost $50M in the end.

Ultimately this is a sad movie, as Shawn Fanning created something technically momentous (independent of what you think of the legal niceties) and had it crushed by more powerful players.   Both Fanning and Parker have gone on to other ventures that have made them rich, but there was a definite wistfulness as they talked about those early days.  As one audience member asked the director in the Q&A, are they rich but sad?

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