Napster Sparked a File-Sharing Revolution 25 Years Ago

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On June 1, 1999, the first public release of Napster launched online, kick-starting a global piracy frenzy that never disappeared. At the same time, it can be argued that the file-sharing software paved the way for legitimate business models that would eventually evolve into subscription-based platforms such as Spotify and Netflix.

napster logoThe invention of the MP3 format in 1993 didn’t make any mainstream news headlines. In hindsight, however, it was a pivotal moment that would revolutionize music consumption, and more.

Invented by the German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg and colleagues at the Fraunhofer Society, the coding format made it possible to reduce the size of music files without any significant loss of audible sound quality.

Due to the size reductions, these digital files could be stored on flash-memory devices. This led to the invention of dedicated MP3 players capable of playing music ripped from CDs. Many considered this a more compact and shock-resistant alternative to the Discman.

At the time, music industry insiders were already fantasizing about the ‘celestial jukebox’; a tool or service that would make it possible to play any track on demand. The MP3 helped to bring this concept a step closer too, as Napster would soon prove.

Napster: June 1, 1999

At the end of the nineties, technology and the Internet were a playground for young engineers and ‘hackers’. Some of them regularly gathered in the w00w00 IRC chatroom on the EFnet network. This tech-think-tank had many notable members, including WhatsApp founder Jan Koum and Shawn Fanning, who logged on with the nickname Napster.

In 1998, 17-year-old Fanning shared an idea with the group. ‘Napster’ wanted to create a network of computers that could share files with each other. More specifically, a central music database that everyone in the world could access.

This idea never left the mind of the young developer. Fanning stopped going to school and flanked by his friend Sean Parker, devoted the following months to making his vision a reality. That moment came on June 1, 1999, when the first public release of Napster was released online. Soon after, the software went viral.


Napster was quickly embraced by millions of users, who saw the software as something magical. It was a gateway for musical exploration, one that dwarfed even the largest record stores in town. And all for free. It sounds mundane today, but some equated it to pure technological sorcery.

For many top players in the music industry, Napster’s sorcery was pure witchcraft. At the time, manufacturing CDs with high profit margins felt like printing money and Napster’s appearance threatened to ruin the party.

Music Industry Shocked

According to the RIAA’s former CEO, Hilary Rosen, a few months after Napster’s release, the music industry shifted into full panic mode. In February 2000, all major label executives discussed the threat during an RIAA board meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.

“I will never forget this day. All of the heads of the labels, literally the titans of the music business, were in that room. I had somebody wheel in a PC and put some speakers up and I started doing a name that tune,” Rosen later recalled.

The major music bosses started to name tracks, including some that weren’t even released yet, and time and again Napster would come up with results. Needless to say, the board was terrified.

Within a year, the RIAA sued Napster Inc. and soon after artists including Metallica and Dr. Dre followed. These high profile cases only raised the popularity of Napster and MP3 players began to sell like hotcakes.

Peak Napster

At the start of 2001, Napster’s user base reached a peak of more than 26.4 million worldwide. Yet, despite huge growth and backing from investors, the small file-sharing empire couldn’t overcome the legal challenges.

The RIAA lawsuit resulted in an injunction from the Ninth Circuit Court, which ordered the network to shut down. This happened during July 2001, little more than two years after Napster launched. By September that year, the case had been settled for millions of dollars.


While the Napster craze was over, file-sharing had mesmerized the masses and the genie was out of the bottle. Grokster, KaZaa, Morpheus, LimeWire, and many others popped up and provided sharing alternatives, for as long as they lasted. Meanwhile, BitTorrent was also knocking on the door.

Ripple Effect

Today, 25 years later, music piracy certainly hasn’t disappeared, but it has changed. When Napster came out, there simply weren’t any legal options to buy digital music online; let alone one that offered ‘unlimited access’.

Napster paved the way for Apple’s iTunes store, to serve the demand that was clearly there. The boom in digital download sales never came close to mimicking the ‘all you can play’ experience and was soon marginalized.

The current music industry generates the bulk of its revenues from online streaming subscriptions, while CDs have been downgraded to rare artifacts. This music streaming landscape was largely pioneered by a Napster ‘fan’ from Sweden, Daniel Ek.

Like many others, Ek was fascinated by the ‘all you can play’ experience offered by file-sharing software, and that planted the seeds for the music streaming startup Spotify, where he still serves as CEO today. In fact, Spotify itself used file-sharing technology under the hood to ensure swift playback.

Spotify is just one of the many examples of the Napster ripple effect, which reaches far beyond technology. The entire music industry has changed, for better and worse, depending on one’s perspective. And the ripples that started 25 years ago will still be felt in the decades to come.


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