One of the most interesting performances in a film this year was Justin Timberlake’s take on Napster co-founder and Facebook supporter Sean Parker, who was portrayed as both a street-smart marketing genius and a paranoid borderline sociopath. While the movie focuses on Facebook, the film about the development of Napster would likely be just as compelling, though the narrative wouldn’t be so much about internal strife as it would be about outside challenges and the discussion about whether or not Napster was ever good for the music industry (most record label types would say no, while college students who didn’t want to blow perfectly good burrito money on a legit copies of the Bob Marley discography would say yes). On this day in 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America filed suit against Napster for copyright infringement, kick-starting an epic legal battle that would take years to resolve.
Napster was developed by Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning in the spring of 1999. Like Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, the program was initially put together to make the creator’s life easier. All Fanning wanted to do was share songs with his friends and search for new tracks that also existed on the same network, but the easy-to-use interface caught on quickly and began to spread. Soon it was a staple of college campuses (it was estimated that as much as 80 percent of external traffic on certain campuses was devoted to Napster) and quickly gained the ire of both the RIAA (who attempted to shut it down almost immediately) and of individual artists.
Though the RIAA was attempting to get an injunction, they didn’t get Napster shut down until the fall of 2001. Along the way, a handful of artists went on the offensive as well, including Madonna, Dr. Dre and Metallica, who were first irked by Napster in the summer of 1999 when they found out that their as-yet-unreleased single “I Disappear” (from the soundtrack to “Mission: Impossible 2”) was already circulating on the service. (Interesting trivia note: “I Disappear” was the last original recording the band made with bassist Jason Newsted, who left the group just before the beginning of the sessions for the 2003 album St. Anger.)