It was the best of ideas, it was the worst of ideas. Perhaps the most revolutionary technological concept to emerge in the super-heated days of the internet investment bubble (with apologies to one-click ordering), the peer-to-peer .mp3 file transfer system developed by barely reformed computer hacker Shawn Fanning fueled a company that at its peak claimed 70 million users and ranked as the fastest-growing company in history. Not bad for the out-of-wedlock son of the guitarist for a Boston-area Aerosmith cover band still in his teens.
The story of how Napster challenged the copyrights and distribution hegemony of the world's ruling music business cartel has become one of the e-boom's most enduring myths: David Vs. Goliath, with an outcome more like Tyson Vs. Lewis. In deconstructing the saga, veteran Los Angeles Times business reporter Joseph Menn patiently chronicles the double-dealing, ego, greed, hubris and remarkable naivete informed by precious little long-term vision that variously characterized both sides of the epic struggle.
Perhaps Menn's most telling revelations here center around the previously under-reported role of Shawn's uncle John Fanning, the shady, entrepreneurial con-man who claimed to be Napster's co-inventor/co-founder (distinctions that actually belonged to Shawn's teen friends, Jordan Ritter and Sean Parker), cutting himself in for a whopping 70% initial stake in the company. The elder Fanning's ability to clutch defeat from the jaws of even the smallest victory is set up as nothing less than Shakespearean parable. If Menn's work has a shortcoming, it's his seeming reticence to consider the larger, long-term implications of peer-to-peer file-swapping and an internet culture that enthusiastically stood centuries-old notions of property rights and demand-and-supply pricing firmly on its head by the tens of millions.
Ironically, the record industry's touted quashing of Napster was ultimately akin to killing a hydra-head monster. A variety of more lawsuit-resistant systems ultimately arose in its wake, leading one executive to ponder whether future record industry battles against file-swapping would simply degenerate into a never-ending game of "Whack-a-Mole". Jerry McCulley
From Publishers Weekly
In this definitive look at the revolutionary music-sharing site, Menn follows Napster's trajectory, from its founder Shawn Fanning's bedroom in Massachusetts to his relocated headquarters in California, and from the company's challenge of copyright laws and its stand against music industry behemoths to the federal court injunction that paralyzed it. Using interviews with key players, emails, court papers and internal documents, Menn, who covers Silicon Valley for the LA Times, reveals a union of youth, hype, rash decision-making and groundbreaking technology. The company beloved by young music fiends and bored office workers all across America had its share of problems during its meteoric rise: the shady background of the major shareholder and self-appointed co-founder, Fanning's uncle John; the never-ending search for funding and executive staff; the lack of a concrete business plan; and, of course, piracy charges. For several years, though, Napster was bolstered by public opinion and independent bands at odds with the record industry. "Napster dominated the market," Menn contends, "both because of its damn-the-torpedoes approach to business and its flawlessly easy-to-use technology." But when a judge ruled against the company's sale to Bertelsmann and Fanning failed to raise enough money for his own bid, Napster filed for bankruptcy and the young "ungeeky geek" whose hair gave Napster its name moved onto a new idea-one, he maintained, that would respect copyright laws. This story of hacker versus record giant is already a classic dot-com age tale, and Menn does it justice in this worthwhile read. 8-page b&w photo insert.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.