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Part 1

From culture to politics, Napster's impact is still felt today Add to ...

Shawn Fanning never meant to change the world, it just kind of happened.

It was January, 1999, and the 18-year-old freshman gazed out the window of his cousin's car as they drove the 40 minutes from Hull, Mass. to Northeastern University in Boston. It was the end of a long weekend and he was lamenting his return to school. While at home he'd made some headway on a piece of software he'd been working on since school started and like anyone consumed with building something from scratch, he wanted to finish it.

By the time he arrived at the campus, he'd come to a decision. With barely a semester of university behind him, Mr. Fanning decided to drop out, head home and devote his attention to the long lines of code scrolling down his computer screen.

He didn't even bother to clean out his dorm room.

A short while after his former classmates ended their freshman year, it was ready. Mr. Fanning's creation - a simple and effective program that let him share his digital music collection with friends - went live on June 1, 1999.

From there, well, pick a simile - a pebble cast in a pond that creates a ripple effect, the first domino in a long line of dominoes, a virus that spreads like wildfire. Whatever. It's easy to see 10 years later - Napster was it.

The music-sharing program represents the dawn of the download decade, a period in which consumers discovered they could acquire whatever media they wanted, when they wanted, for free over the Internet, and in the process toppled imposed business models and forced new ones.

One moment, file sharing belonged to a tiny subculture of tech-savvy computer geeks; the next, millions of average people were accessing their entertainment with a degree of control they'd never experienced before. Media and entertainment companies, which for so long had been happily dictating the terms of the consumption arrangement suddenly found their long-standing and wildly profitable revenue streams threatened. And society, which once had a pretty clear idea of right and wrong, now wasn't so sure.

Ask him, and Mr. Fanning will readily admit he had no idea the impact his program would have.

"It's hard to say that I really could have seen that coming," Mr. Fanning said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail. "Especially since I set out to build it and make it work for a handful of friends. To see the software and the concept applied on a much larger scale, it was a great experience."

When Napster came along ... it was now a situation where everything - anything that anybody ever had recorded - would now be available online for people to take for free. It was a game changer. Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America

While copyright infringement and file sharing wasn't new in 1999, Napster brought it to the masses.

Although the music industry was the first to feel the effects of digital media, the ability to transform information into data and transfer it quickly over the Internet has changed long-standing business models in more than the record industry. Movie studios, book publishers, TV producers, video-game makers and even newspapers - any business that makes its money from the creation of intellectual content - has been dragged kicking and screaming into a new reality, one many of them were (and still are) unprepared to deal with.

Yet aside from the immediate impact Napster - and file sharing as a whole - had on these industries, a consumer's ability to download entertainment and information has had overwhelmingly positive effects as well.

For every business threatened with extinction, another one recognized the potential of being able to carry a thousand songs in your pocket. Consumers' desire to download content spurred the growth of broadband Internet access, which in turn stimulated the growth of wireless networking, IP communications and video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

Today, we buy our music online, download movies on demand and read newspaper stories on our cellphones.

Meanwhile, legal systems around the world struggle to adjust to the ever-changing nuances of what exactly it is to "share," successfully closing some services and sites, suing thousands of average consumers and convincing ISPs to hand over personal data about their customers. And yet file sharing seems to grow stronger year after year.

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