December 7, 1999: Whatever Happened to Napster?

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A Brief History

On December 7, 1999, A&M Records, Inc. filed a Federal lawsuit against the music sharing online giant, Napster. Napster, created on June 1, 1999, by Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, as a music sharing online platform in which millions of music lovers across the country and the world were able to download the latest musical releases at no cost to themselves, and by default no profit to the music/recording industry.  As the saying goes, “There is no free lunch.”  Another apropos saying, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is…” also applies, for it did not take long for recording artists and recording studios to realize they were losing out on millions of dollars’ worth of music sales.

Digging Deeper

Set up with software allowing friends (aka, peers) to share their recorded music with each other, the digital file sharing lasted from June of 1999 until shut down by court order in July of 2001, though the effective period of music sharing was less. The means used to torpedo Napster was the court case, A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., 114 F. Supp.2d 896 (2000).  The case was heard in the Northern District of California of the US District (i.e., Federal) Court by Judge Marilyn Hall Patel.  Patel ruled against Napster, initially allowing an immediate injunction against Napster to stop the file sharing.  The case progressed and decided against Napster, despite Napster presenting a “fair use” type of defense and an argument based on “Free Speech” (the First Amendment). 

Marilyn Hall Patel, Senior District Judge

Judge Patel ruled in the case that Napster’s actions were commercial in nature, that the music was “creative” and subject to protections, that Napster’s users usually used the entire copyrighted works, and finally that the music studio (A&M Records, Inc.) was indeed hurt financially by the operation of Napster.  Of course, numerous other (i.e., boring) legal points were also cited, the gist of the ruling being that Napster had infringed on the musical copyrights and that such actions should cease.

The A&M Records, Inc. lawsuit spelled the end of the “Happy Time” (my words) for music lovers, and the free sharing of music files at the Napster website was over. Napster was closed down and sold to Roxio (a digital media company) who reopened the site as an online record store.  In 2011, Napster was bought by Rhapsody which in 2016 dropped the Rhapsody name in favor of just using the Napster brand name,doing business as a music streaming service.

Napster peaked in February 2001.

Although music producing companies and musical composers and artists have lost untold millions of dollars due to the easy transfer of digital music files among music lovers, including peer to peer sharing and downloading songs from YouTube and other online video and audio sources, those people and companies are still making plenty of money, as evidenced by their willingness to pump out commercial music about as fast as they can.  Somehow recording stars manage to survive on their income after all!  (Still, we have this little place in our hearts that empathizes with the folks that have lost a ton of money, but we still love the easy and free access to tunes!)

Questions for Students (and Others): Did you utilize Napster when it was first available to download music for free?  Do you believe Napster was ripping off the music industry?  Should people be allowed to copy CD’s and music downloads for their friends for free?  Did Judge Patel make the right decision in the A&M Records vs. Napster case?

Napster running under Mac OS 9 in March 2001.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Menn, Joseph. All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning’s Napster.   Joseph Menn, 2011.

Whitt, Stephen. How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention. Penguin Books, 2015.

The featured image in this article, a screen capture taken by Njahnke of Napster running under Mac OS 9 in March 2001, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.  You are free:

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.