The Napster backlash

When Savenapster.com founder Chad Paulson decided that the file-trading pioneer cared more about money than artists, he stunned the company by changing sides. An excerpt from "All the Rave."


Joseph Menn
April 21, 2003 11:30PM (UTC)

After the record labels sued Napster in December 1999 and put the tiny start-up on the map, Napster's growth exploded on college campuses that offered free high-speed access from dorm rooms. Colleges saw their networks clog badly. Typical was the University of California, San Diego. "The use of Napster has now begun to impair the vital functions (education, research) of our network to the point that some action MUST be taken," UCSD administrators wrote on Feb. 1, 2000, to all residents. "At this point, the only option is to block access to Napster from campus machines." More than a hundred campuses banned Napster, either because of bandwidth issues or pressure from the Recording Industry Association of America, which was tracking copyrighted music going to university machines.

The press had a field day, for the first time putting Napster on newspaper front pages. But reporters missed the internal chaos at the privately owned firm, didn't examine the questionable background of its largest shareholder, Shawn Fanning's uncle John, and didn't realize that Fanning and other Napster engineers shared a background in gray-hat hacking with some of their activist supporters. (Fanning himself had written a published program for a denial-of-service attack.)

Advertisement:

Needing no more enemies, Napster largely stayed out of the fight over university access, hoping students would do battle for it. Many students merely grumbled. But at Indiana University, where a ban took effect after Napster's consumption of campus bandwidth neared 85 percent, a computer-science sophomore named Chad Paulson started a group called Students Against University Censorship and launched a petition drive. With Napster secretly paying the registration fee, he took the Web domain name Savenapster.com.

A natural politician, Paulson used neutral language and criticized the universities in an area of historic sensitivity for them, casting the dispute as a matter of free-speech rights on campus. "Universities often overlook the student when making crucial decisions such as the ban of certain Internet privileges," Paulson wrote on his Web site. "Higher education in America should be free of censorship and complete administrative control." In his press interviews, Paulson conceded that many Napster users were looking for copyrighted material, but he argued that the innocent shouldn't be punished along with the guilty. Paulson was also honest when he said he himself wasn't using the system for piracy: He used Napster to look for live performances by independent bands that didn't mind their music being distributed.

Paulson's petition quickly gathered 20,000 signatures and may have prompted Indiana, Yale, and other schools to bring Napster back, although another factor was work on a more efficient second-generation Internet system. Paulson was featured on networks from MTV to CNN as a spokesman for the Napster movement. Unlike those inside the company, whose words were governed by public relations and legal concerns, Paulson could speak his mind. He had more than a dozen chats with Fanning, co-founder Sean Parker and product manager Brandon Barber.

Advertisement:

Paulson thought Napster could evolve into an amazing promotion vehicle for bands that never got big contracts. But Fanning and the others seemed militant about changing the industry as a whole. "I had my own agenda, what I thought Napster would be great for," Paulson recalled. "They had their own agenda, but they wouldn't tell me what it was. They were like, 'This is great, we're really sticking it to them.' I didn't really get it. They were definitely playing the role of victim, but Shawn was more interested in breaking down the system and seeing what happened."

The recording industry's biggest public relations victory came in mid-April 2000, when the hard-rock group Metallica filed suit against Napster in federal court. Metallica accused the company not only of copyright violations but also of running afoul of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act through its repeated transgressions. "From a business standpoint, this is about piracy -- aka taking something that doesn't belong to you -- and that is morally and legally wrong," said Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

The Metallica suit drove a wedge through Napster's supporters. But filing it was a costly decision, image-wise. Even many Metallica listeners sided with Napster, proclaiming that the band had sold out years before. A few noted that Metallica's popularity had been built in its early days precisely through unauthorized tape-swapping. And someone hacked Metallica's site, leaving the words "Leave Napster Alone." An ex-fan of the group launched Killmetallica.com and called for a boycott of the band's products. That site was joined by Metallicasucks.com, Screwlars.com, and Paylarstoshutup.com, which sarcastically asked visitors to use an online payment service to make donations so the millionaire rock star would go away.

Advertisement:

Probably the biggest contributor to a wave of pro-Napster hacks was 16-year-old Robert Lyttle of Pleasant Hill, Calif. Using the handle "Pimpshiz," Lyttle broke in to more than 200 Web sites and left a pro-Napster diatribe on each. He also offered to patch the security hole he had come through, for a fee, and ended with a cheerful "Hi Mom!" Among his victims were sites run by NASA, the U.S. Army Materiel Command, and the French Bibliothèque Nationale. Lyttle reached Fanning and Napster server architect Jordan Ritter on Internet Relay Chat and told them what he had done for their cause. The two looked at each other in horror. "Are you crazy?" Fanning typed. Lyttle's run ended in December 2000 with a raid on his home.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Advertisement:

Others began to feel uneasy about their use of Napster. The most important change of heart was by Savenapster.com's Paulson. He had been listening to all sides and had boned up on copyright law. Paulson had seen the press reports about Napster's moneyed backers, and he was angry about what Parker had told him on the phone. When Paulson first began organizing, Parker told him that Napster wanted to promote new artists. Yet almost nothing had been done on that score, while songs that were obviously unauthorized were trading like crazy. When Paulson asked Parker again about Napster's plans to support independent music, Parker told him that wasn't a priority, Paulson recalled. (Parker denied saying that.) Paulson also saw too many televised news reports that featured him defending the service, then cut to arrogant students with hundreds of MP3s by artists who weren't getting paid. He felt he looked like a stooge.

Paulson wrote an open letter to both Metallica and Napster on his Web site, explaining that his views had evolved. "There are many kids out there today that do not respect the fact that artists work long and hard to put out albums. They take quality music for granted and they don't fully realize that even though a musician may be popular and on the radio, it doesn't necessarily mean they are full of money. Even if they are, there is no excuse to break the law," Paulson wrote. "I saw much potential with Napster, yet at the same time I had many issues on how Napster was used as a haven for piracy, something that I abhor." Paulson said that he had decided that "the company is knowingly facilitating the transmission of copyrighted material, and they are making a profit from that without any crackdown."

Since Paulson had been newsworthy before, his about-face brought even greater media attention. Napster employees were livid. Parker phoned Paulson and called him a traitor as an employee screamed in the background that Napster was a revolution that couldn't be stopped, Paulson said. Barber sent him a fiery e-mail: "I'm struggling to understand your logic on this shit. Are you looking for new press angles to support? Your negative campaigning is the least of our press worries -- we have larger fish to fry. However, I think it's safe to say that the sentiment around here is shock, disbelief and betrayal. On a personal level, I vouched for your ass internally and now you've called my judgment into question."

Advertisement:

Words weren't enough for one Napster volunteer -- Haverhill, Mass., high school student Wayne Chang, who had known Fanning from his earlier days as "Napster" the fellow hacker. By now in charge of Napster's Web site message boards, Chang hacked into the infrastructure company that was hosting Savenapster.com and made Paulson's Web-hosting bill appear two months overdue. And he hacked the site itself, adding a new story to the press section bearing the headline "I BACKSTABBED NAPSTER." Chang was proud of the feat, and he e-mailed Ritter to brag. After suggesting that Ritter visit the Savenapster site "while it's still defaced," he added: "I also changed the pw [password] back on the shell, so chad won't think it's a server problem ... ps: delete this message." Ritter stayed mum, and when Paulson complained to Napster about the hack, Barber wrote: "I give you my word that no one affiliated with this organization had anything to do with it. I apologize for what must be a very frustrating situation." Paulson complained to the FBI, which was unable to solve the attack.

In an interview, Chang said he would neither confirm nor deny responsibility.


Joseph Menn

Joseph Menn covers Silicon Valley and Microsoft for the Los Angeles Times. He lives in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Joseph Menn


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Business Copyright Intellectual Property

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •