The Internet is great not only for distributing homemade digital entertainment. It's also increasingly being used for swapping and swiping products, especially music, made by major artists and studios. By now, the long-running legal battle between the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA)--representing the traditional recording industry--and the millions of college kids downloading free jams over the Net has begun to resemble those chewing-gum commercials where fusty geezers shake their canes at crazy kids and their "flavor crystals." The latest twist in this saga of college kids ignoring their elders, not to mention copyright law, is the emergence of file-sharing software that makes it easy to swap with fellow pirateers music stored on computer hard drives--generically known as MP3 files.
Napster, the most popular of these software clients, has been downloaded more than 5 million times, causing its parent company's CEO, Eileen Richardson, to boast, "We're the fastest-growing company in the history of the Web." Gnutella, an open-source variant of Napster created by ex-hacker and current AOL employee Justin Frankel, 21, caused a buzz last week when AOL scurried to pull the software, calling it "an unauthorized free-lance project." AOL is planning to merge with Time Warner, a major player in the music industry. But by the time AOL yanked Gnutella, enough copies had been downloaded to ensure that it would soon be reproducing virally through the Web.
It's fitting that college campuses are the breeding ground for these infectiously growing programs. Founder Shawn Fanning, 19, wrote the original code for Napster while he was a freshman computer-science major at Boston's Northeastern University. An admittedly lousy guitar player, Fanning began writing the code so he could distribute his own six-string doodlings and squelch his roomie's constant whining about unreliable MP3 search engines. Back in the MP3 stone age--you know, eight months ago--too many links to too many tunes were outdated or invalid, frustrating many a prospective pirate.
Fanning's software, released last August, included the features that made Napster a millennial college trend: live chat and MP3 indexing combined with fast, clean file sharing that bypasses your computer's sluggish send-mail program. It wasn't revolutionary so much as ingenious, linking existing concepts rather than breaking new programming ground. The day Fanning put the software online via a server at his uncle's office, he knew he had a huge hit: "As soon as we were up we were getting blasted with traffic." The company claims its user base growth rate has been between 5% and 25% a day.