“Whizkid,” “genius,” and “scourge of the music industry” are just a few of the names thrown at Shawn Fanning, 19. Fanning is the brain behind Napster.com, the MP3 exchange website that sent the recording industry into an uproar. Recently the courts have stepped in to quiet the din. On July 26, the United States District Court of San Francisco ordered that the Napster online music service stop permitting the exchange of copyrighted materials owned by major music labels. As we go to press, Napster.com has been granted a stay, allowing its 20 million users to continue sharing files while Napster’s appeal of the injunction is pending.
Effectively, Napster created a free global music store. Instead of buying CDs, users could go online, select from over 300,000 songs, and download them in MP3 form to play through a computer, burn onto a CD, or play on an MP3 player. The system also allows for users to look through and download from the MP3 collection of anyone else logged onto Napster at the same time, allowing for an infinite number of music exchanges. Even though there are quite a few MP3 websites, through the virtual network that Fanning set up, Napster members are able to trade music that has not been authorized by record labels or individual networks, thereby violating copyright law. The Recording Industry Association of America targeted Napster as the first in a series of lawsuits they plan to hold against MP3 exchange sites.
Fanning came up with the idea in his college dorm room at Northeastern University in Boston. He and his friends were frustrated with the existing MP3.com and Scour.net, and sought to create something to fill their needs. He had no idea that his personal adventure would turn into a popular trend and a public dispute.
Fanning, who comes from Irish-American stock, got his first computer only four years ago. Instead of studying for tests, he would study computer manuals, and took up programming as a hobby. To keep up with the increasing demand for a better website, Fanning found himself having to learn and implement more complicated programming. When the site started to take off, Fanning’s uncle, John Fanning, saw the potential of his nephew’s idea, and encouraged the innovator to turn the personal site into a business. Shawn dropped out of college and moved to San Mateo, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, to run the site as a full-time job. ♦