Q&A: Napster creator Shawn Fanning

Here's an inside look at the popular music software that is suddenly the target of recording artists and college universities.

The Internet has become a breeding ground for a wide array of interesting issues. Internet pundits have discussed everything from politics to pornography at great length, but only few could have foreseen that one of the most important issues would revolve around a compression technology known as MP3 or MPEG Audio Layer 3.

At a time when the MP3 industry is under fire from multiple directions, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has filed a lawsuit against the small start-up company out of San Mateo, California, known as Napster. Napster is software that lets users to create a virtual network in which they can see other users' MP3s and decide if they would like to download them or not. The Napster software also gives you the ability to chat with other users and create a set of preferences based on the users' own musical tastes. So why is the RIAA going after Napster? While some of the files being traded through Napster are legal, the majority of the files are not. Users of Napster are able to trade music that has not been authorized by record labels or individual artists, thereby violating copyright law.

Napster maintains that the company itself is not guilty of any wrongdoing since the company does not keep any of the illegal files on its servers. Of course, the RIAA continues to push the issue, stating that Napster still has some liability in providing an area for people to trade copyrighted material. The situation has developed into a ferocious storm of controversy. "We love the idea of using technology to build artist communities, but that's not what Napster is all about. Napster is about facilitating piracy and trying to build a business on the backs of artists and copyright owners," said Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel of the RIAA. Various artists in the recording industry agree. "I couldn't believe it when I found out that this Napster was linking thousands of people to the new Notorious BIG album, Born Again, a week before it even hit the streets," said Sean Combs, who is also known as Puff Daddy. "This album is a labor of love from Notorious BIG's friends to the man, his kids, the rest of his family, and everyone else whose lives will never be the same since BIG passed. BIG and every other artist Napster abuses deserve respect for what they give us."

Regardless of the conflict that has been spawned between Napster and the RIAA, it's obvious that the software brings a number of interesting ideas to the table. Napster has the potential to change the way people share information or different forms of media, whether it is MP3s or not. ZDNet Music spoke with the creator of Napster, Shawn Fanning, to learn more about Napster, and while many of our questions couldn't be answered due to legal constraints, it's obvious that Napster will become one of the main focal points in the ongoing Internet music revolution:

ZDNet: What was your motivation for starting Napster? Shawn Fanning: Well, there were a few things. I was at Northeastern University playing with the idea and getting feedback from my roommates, and then started drafting a really basic design idea. It was rooted out of frustration not only with MP3.com, Lycos, and Scour.net, but also to create a music community. There really was nothing like it at the time. We had good ideas for implementation, so we proceeded. I think it was an excellent solution to the reliability issues with existing search engines.

ZDNet: What was the most difficult aspect to deal with in terms of design?

Shawn Fanning: I think the most difficult thing had been scaling the infrastructure. Trying to support the response we had received from our users and the number of people that were interested in using the software. I think that's been the most difficult thing. Also, it was pretty difficult because I had a background in Unix development, but it was really my first Windows application. I had to actually purchase a book to learn the API and write the client. It was pretty frustrating trying to learn the API and develop a product quickly.

ZDNet: So you had a sense that once you finished the program that it would become as popular as it is today?

Shawn Fanning: The idea would become pretty popular. I wasn't really sure that my implementation of it would be what really took off, but fortunately I was able to get a prototype done. Unfortunately, the client that exists today is still pretty much the prototype design. A lot of things we're working on lately have been UI [user interface] cleanups and things like that, as well as trying to scale the network. I understood an idea like this could become popular, but at the same time I didn't think it was my implementation that would be so widely used.

ZDNet: When did you first realize that you would need to establish a formal company around the software?

Shawn Fanning: Well, user feedback was excellent. Even when the software didn't work at all, there were few people who were avid users, and there were people who were just sending excellent feedback and excellent ideas. I think then, when we started receiving the first of the user feedback, feedback from people that I had not specifically told about it, but had spread from friend to friend and then they were giving us feedback. But I think the point at which I realized it had serious potential was when download.com put us in the download spotlight. It was very early, and we were still like beta or alpha stage, and so we started receiving a ton of download. The server became overloaded, and that's when I realized that this had a huge market.

ZDNet: Was there any hesitation in bringing Napster to the next level?

Shawn Fanning: Not really. I thought it was pretty exciting just in terms of the technology. One of the founding developers, Jordan Ritter - once that happened - had to take over the server-side stuff because there was so much work. We were trying both to scale the infrastructure and improve the client and add features. I don't think I was hesitant. I just think it was a question of time. That's why I ended up leaving school - because it required so much time, and it was such an excellent idea. I figured I would regret not going full force with this idea. It seemed we could make something of it.

ZDNet: It seems that many independent artists have embraced MP3s and Napster. What kind of reaction are you getting from independent music groups?

Shawn Fanning: Yeah, we have quite an interesting collection of feedback that the marketing people have been collecting about the new artists.

ZDNet: How will Napster, the software, evolve? What kind of features are you planning for in future releases?

Shawn Fanning: You look at the core of the technology, and you take a real-time search engine. Obviously, a natural extension is to include other types of file formats, things like that. I think it's pretty obvious to most people that Napster is not media specific, but I could see a system like Napster evolving into something that allows users to locate and retrieve different types of data other than just MP3s or audio files. I think in terms of the work we're doing now a lot of the UI cleanup... I see it getting much prettier. I think the community feature could be enhanced considerably - working on the reliability of the network, quality of service. Those are the things, the immediate things, that I think need to be worked on But I just really think there is a natural extension into other types of media because it's an excellent system for reliably locating and retrieving content. The distributive nature means that it scales pretty well in terms of providing content.

ZDNet: Has bandwidth usage become a top priority? Schools have banned the use of Napster due to the amount of bandwidth it uses.

Shawn Fanning: It's interesting because a long time ago, before there was even a product, another founder, Shawn Parker, who's 19... he and I had been conversing on the Internet. We met through the Internet security community. He said this has the potential to be the first broadband killer application, and it has sort of become the truth because obviously it's so bandwidth intensive. I mean, it has been an issue. It's been all over the press, and schools are deciding to shut it down. We released a public announcement saying that we had some potential solutions that we were working with, and once we had something concrete we would start implementing it and approach schools. So it's definitely an issue, but it's something that we're working on. Hopefully we'll have a solution soon to present to both universities and corporations, because its popularity has just been incredible. It spread through universities and companies very quickly. So the bandwidth issue is definitely a big concern of ours.