The file-sharing program Napster, infamous for its worldwide distribution of mp3 songs in 1999, was the pioneer of peer-to-peer networking as well as the first victim of the file-sharing copyright laws by which we must now abide. Though its death has initiated the spawning of many similar programs, none have matched the popularity and convenience offered to Internet users in Napster’s early days.
Its original goal was to combine three important tools: a search engine, file sharing, and a method for communicating with other downloaders and file-sharers. Napster’s creator distributed the original beta versions of his program through download.com and it was soon amongst the most downloaded files on that site.
The premise of Napster, the product of a college student named Shawn Fanning, was quite simple. The user would download and run the program, create a login for themselves, and choose a folder on their hard drive from which songs could be saved to and downloaded from. The program would check for an Internet connection to access a central index server.
From there, the user would simply click on ‘search’ and, after inputting the name of the artist, song or album they wanted, find MP3 files related to their search terms. In order to do this, the program sorted through the central server, finding a list of users who had a file which matched the search terms. The program would tell the user’s computer about each match, producing a list of comprehensive results that could be sorted by time, size, bitrate, name, or connection of the user in possession of the song.
The downloading user would double-click the song or songs they wanted and from there the song would begin saving to their hard drive immediately if there were many copies, or if the song was rare they would move into a queue to download it. There were so many users that generally if the song existed, it could be found on Napster, and you hardly ever needed to wait.
The central server kept records of all the users and songs, and each client would go through that central server in order to connect to the files. It is this detail that eventually did Napster in; the distribution of the files could be halted by shutting down that server, unlike the current peer-to-peer (P2P) networks.
Today, clients that use P2P systems, such as Gnutella, connect directly to the PC of the user with the song they want, rather than to a central server, thanks to the lawsuit filed against Napster. The issue the music industry had was that Napster acted as a massive, automated way of making illegal copies of copyrighted materials. Neither the artists nor the music industry received the money in return for the songs being duplicated by people through Napster.
Napster claimed that since all of the files were being transferred directly between computers and not through them, they could not be held accountable, however, the suit was passed and Napster was forced to close down. It has since been reactivated as a paid service (users must actually buy the MP3 before they can procure it) but the former users of the popular program have moved on to newer software.