Napster's employees finally cleaned out their desks two weeks ago, striding out of their San Francisco offices with boxes full of stationery, books and souvenirs emblazoned with the alien wearing earphones.
The end came on Sept. 3 after a Delaware bankruptcy judge blocked the sale of Napster's access to media titan Bertelsmann AG (which was one of the companies that joined in a December 1999 lawsuit against the service).
The one time standard bearer of online music swapping, has finally sung its swan song. But to fans, the company has been as good as dead since it was forced offline in July of last year.
The only surprise is that it took the coroner so long to sign its death certificate.
At the height of its popularity, Napster boasted more than 60 million users who swapped everything from Mozart to Moby. The idea that started in Shawn Fanning's dorm room at Northeastern University, brought the world's great music collections into the hard drives of web surfers everywhere. But it was no match for the wrath of the Recording Industry of America and their partners who brought the company down with allegations of copyright infringement.
But Napster's downfall has failed to stop the music.
File sharing sites, both legal and those of questionable legality, continue to thrive on the Internet. The record companies were quick to swoop in and fill the void after Napster's demise, forming their own subscription services, but they are pale imatations. Charging $9.95 a month you can access a library of 40,000 songs, but good luck finding the Beatles or some of the Rolling Stones' best material.
The free services are emerging victorious in the battle over music lovers. Most subscription sites keep their usage figures secret, but according to estimates cited in The Wall Street Journal, MusicNet, one of the more successful of the pay services, has a customer base of around 40,000. In comparison, weekly downloads on such free sites as Gnutella, Morpheus and LimeWire, number in the hundreds of millions.
The recording companies like to bring up the notion that you're somehow ripping off your favorite artist by not paying for their music. A reasonable argument, of course, but the major labels themselves have a rocky history with artist rights and paying out royalties. As 1960s psychedelic musician Joseph Byrd (who has seen virtually nothing in royalties from his label Sony) said in Salon.com article, "I personally would prefer to allow my music to be freely shared, to the present situation, in which only the corporations stand to gain."
The pay services will never gain the affection of listeners the way Napster did. One of the reasons why is that music is such an intangible entity. It's part of the atmosphere of humanity. It takes no form other than the notes that enter our ears. For most people stealing music means walking out of a record store with a couple of CDs stuffed under their shirts. Making a copy for our listening is just that. Listening pleasure.
Ultimately the problem with Napster was that it allowed users to search for tunes on its own centralized server. The architecture was its own worst enemy allowing the record companies to easily hunt it down and shut it down.
Napster started a revolution in music, not seen since Edison recorded "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a wax cylinder. For the first time in history virtually all of mankind's music was only a few key strokes away. Napster, like Edison, may be dead, but the music will live on.
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