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7 December

Record Industry Association of America files lawsuit against Napster, 1999

This is the day in 1999 that the self-styled “music industry” started its fightback. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against Napster intended to prevent it from distributing music over its peer-to-peer file-sharing service. At the time the vast bulk of people didn’t know what peer-to-peer file-sharing was but the publicity that the case caused meant that many more of them soon did – thanks to helpful explanatory articles in newspapers etc. The suit came on top of previous attempts by individuals – notably members of Metallica and rapper/producer Dr Dre – to force Napster to stop sharing copyright music over its servers, legal processes which were still in the works when the RIAA went in with the big guns. Short-term, publicity around the lawsuit pumped Napster’s daily numbers right up – it had 80 million registered users at its peak – but on 5 March 2001 an injunction won by the RIAA forced Napster to stop facilitating the movement of copyrighted music across its network. In July 2001, Napster shut down its free file-sharing service and set about developing a pay model, partly as a means to paying off the settlement fees which the record companies had won in the court case. By spring 2002 Napster reckoned it had a business model and the technology that would work, all it needed was licensing agreements from the record companies. But the record companies, still living within an analogue mindset, refused to play ball. Napster went bust. File-sharing continued.

Downloaded (2013, dir: Alex Winter)

Alex Winter is a regular in the “whatever happened to?” game. The other guy in the Bill and Ted films, the one who wasn’t Keanu Reeves, Winter went off and quietly started building a reputation as a director, in TV mostly. Downloaded is his first film, a documentary about the digital revolution, file-sharing and Napster in particular. Telling the story from the very beginning, in 1998, Winter details Napster’s big idea (“A global internet community, with access to every music file on every hard drive, everywhere”), tells us why it was important (because it created the concept of large-scale internet communities) and then gets to the people responsible (Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, interviewed in a fresh-faced 1999 and in sleek-but-still-hip 2013) and the people affected (eg a “fuck you, Napster” Dr Dre). “Like it or not Napster has changed everything, and the music companies are sadly behind the curve,” as one music biz insider puts it. Quite how blind-siding Napster and its file-sharing technology was is expressed by Ali Aydar, Napster’s senior director of technology – “I was, like, nobody’s gonna open up their hard drive like that… nobody’s gonna allow their bandwidth to be used… no one is gonna share an MP3 – that was my quote. Boy was I wrong. I was so wrong.” Or as Parker puts it in a nutshell “suddenly you could be connected to everyone.” Undeniably pro file-sharing, Winter’s doc manages to find similarly pro voices in the unlikeliest corners. Chris Blackwell, of Island Records, points out that record companies had done very nicely thank you from changing technology in the past – as 78s became 33s, and vinyl became CD, companies had sold the same old music all over again to people keen to go with the new formats. And various biz insiders point out that record companies had started out as hardware manufacturers (EMI and HMV both originally produced phonographs) but that they had taken their eye off the technological ball. “It came back and hit them with a wallop,” as Sire Records’ Seymour Stine says. Winter’s doc isn’t without its odd unnecessary moment – the post-Napster stuff – but his access to the key players is impressive, his use of graphics to explain the techie stuff is neat and yes, it might be history from the viewpoint of the winner, but the file-sharing phenomenon was/is a cultural game-changer and it’s about time someone documented it.

Why Watch?

  • Great access, from both sides of the debate
  • Captures the euphoria of early internet days
  • An ABC of how this stuff works – for those who don’t know
  • Technical details for those who do know

Dowloaded – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2013

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