THE NAPSTER REVOLUTION is the inside story of how two teenage hackers create a company that reshapes the internet and sets music – and all information – on the path to freedom. Shawn Fanning invents Napster so he can find music more easily online. Sean Parker has the vision to turn Fanning’s code into a business. They get sucked into Silicon Valley at the height of the first internet boom, a Wild West where high-rolling investors throw millions of dollars at dubious ideas. But Napster isn’t just an idea – it’s a game-changing technology with tens of millions of devoted users. At the turn of the millennium, Napster-mania overtakes the world, and the music industry sees it as a threat to its very existence. From all-night raves to Senate hearings, Fanning and Parker are living lives they never imagined – and then it all comes crashing down, thanks to reckless mismanagement, rampaging egos, and the cold reality of the law. Napster can’t be allowed to live. But the revolution it starts is just beginning.
Online and operational for barely more than two years, Napster is most often seen as a cautionary tale, a hazy college memory, a relic from internet prehistory. But as its 20th anniversary approaches, Napster’s impact is bigger than ever. Without Fanning’s innovation or Parker’s drive, we wouldn’t have Spotify, Facebook, Netflix, Bitcoin, Uber, or the iPhone. These two teenagers open Pandora’s music box, force a multibillion-dollar industry to change, and rewire the way an entire generation thinks. We are living in the world that Napster created.
THE NAPSTER REVOLUTION is two stories: a micro story with high-stakes drama that carries viewers across the series and a macro story that shows viewers the enormous impact Napster has on the music industry and the digital revolution.
The micro story is the never-before-seen story of Napster and the people behind it: Shawn Fanning, the shy, soft-spoken teenage hacker who comes up with a brilliant innovation; Sean Parker, a visionary hustler who helps bring Napster, Facebook and Spotify to the world; and Shawn’s uncle John Fanning, a shifty entrepreneur who dooms the company in his quest to profit off his nephew’s breakthrough. The story of these three men, along with the other hackers, executives, investors and lawyers involved with Napster, is one of technological genius, fast-paced business dealings, legal drama, and raw interpersonal conflict. Napster’s far-reaching influence shapes the decisions of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and ignites debates about open source software, copyright law and free speech as it remolds the internet in its own image. High-quality writing and acting will bring this intimate, funny and tragic story to life in well-crafted scenes in the vein of Silicon Valley and The Social Network.
The macro story is Napster’s central role in the evolution of the internet and the way we consume media, information and entertainment. From the creation of the mp3, to the new reality of on-demand everything, we will tell the story of the trends and events that have influenced and been influenced by Napster. Each episode will feature one of these parallel stories alongside the ongoing story of Napster’s creation and destruction, told in a unique “hyperlinked” style that mimics the free-flowing way we surf the Web looking for information and entertainment.
To tell the inside story of Napster, Warm Springs Productions has attached the book All the Rave: The Rise and Fall of Shawn Fanning’s Napster, by Financial Times and Los AngelesTimes technology reporter Joseph Menn. Based on years of reporting and research, and interviews with nearly every major player, Menn’s book is the most detailed, accurate, authoritative account of Napster’s birth, life and death. Our unique access to Menn and his research and interviews will enable us to tell this story with authentic, surprising scenes and details that most accounts leave out.
SEEK & DESTROY
Growing up without a father in some of Boston’s toughest neighborhoods, even spending time in a foster home, Shawn Fanning finds refuge in computers – thanks to the gift of a Macintosh from his uncle John. Spending hours online chatting under the handle Napster, Shawn is drawn to w00w00, an underground community of “grey-hat” hackers who uncover, exploit and (sometimes) fix holes in online security. Inspired by his college roommate’s difficulties finding mp3s online, Shawn starts writing a program to allow users to search and share their digital music collections. Shawn locks himself away in the office of Chess.net, his uncle’s online chess company, drinking so much Red Bull he starts to hallucinate, and even drops out of college to eliminate distractions, devastating his mom. But when he sends the first version of his program to his friends on w00w00 in early 1999, another business-minded teenage hacker friend, Sean Parker, sees the potential for something greater. While Parker searches for investors, John Fanning pressures Shawn to sign over 70% of Napster Inc. One by one, the investors that Parker brings in are put off by the erratic and greedy John Fanning. One investor even offers Shawn a million dollars to leave the nascent Napster Inc., but Shawn is loyal to his uncle. Finally, Napster gets a $250,000 investment from Yosi Amram, one of John Fanning’s chess buddies – on the condition that John is not the CEO. As thousands of users sign up for Napster daily to fill their hard drives with free music, Shawn Fanning leaves his old life behind and heads for the Wild West of Silicon Valley.
In 1989, a team of German engineers listen to a four-second snippet of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” over and over, tweaking the algorithm that will compress the digital audio file to 1/12 its original size while maintaining CD audio quality. Their perfected technology is dubbed the Motion Picture Entertainment Group Audio Layer 3 – or mp3, for short. Passed over by Hollywood and tech companies in favor of the corporate-backed mp2, the mp3 nearly dies before it becomes the preferred format of listeners like Shawn’s roommate, thanks to the free WinAmp mp3 player, MP3.com, and the rise of digital piracy.
Silicon Valley is a culture shock for Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker when they arrive in September 1999. They move into a house with an eccentric Russian chess grandmaster that John Fanning knows. Napster’s new VP of business development, Bill Bales, has to rent them a car because they’re too young to do it themselves. They meet their new CEO, Eileen Richardson, three times before they realize she’s not an assistant. Shawn and a team of engineers spend days and nights beefing up the Napster system to handle the growing flood of new users – Napster fever has taken root on college campuses, where returning students are clogging campus networks with mp3 downloads. At an Ecstasy-fueled rave that Parker throws to promote Napster, it seems to both of the teenage founders that Napster is a Silicon Valley rocket that they’ll ride to untold riches. But Napster’s foundation is already crumbling. Back in Boston, John Fanning is already selling some of his Napster stock to fund renovations on a dilapidated mansion and to fund his legal battles against creditors. When he receives an email from the Recording Industry Association of America’s head of piracy enforcement about starting a dialogue, Fanning stonewalls them. Richardson continues Fanning’s stalling tactics. She knows that the vast majority of the music shared on Napster is pirated, and the company’s business plan boils down to acquiring enough users so they can more or less extort a deal from the record companies. As the year 2000 approaches, RIAA president Hilary Rosen, tired of Napster’s games, decides to take action.
When Napster moves to Silicon Valley, the dot-com bubble is nearly at its peak. Venture capitalists and angel investors are handing million-dollar checks to anything with a “.com” at the end of its name, no matter how dubious the product or the people behind it. One of the biggest swindles is video company Pixelon, whose founder uses a fake name and store-bought software to bilk $30 million from investors and spend half of it on a party in Vegas with the Who and the Dixie Chicks.
SOME KIND OF MONSTER
In the short term, the RIAA lawsuit helps Napster. The publicity brings in millions of new users, forcing some colleges to ban Napster entirely for eating up too much bandwidth. Shawn Fanning becomes a reluctant star, but inside the company, fractures are forming. Boardroom clashes between Amram, Richardson and John Fanning become more frequent, leading Shawn and Sean Parker to consider leaving and starting their own company. As the threat of a trial looms, Richardson scrambles to find a venture capitalist firm to invest in the company to keep it afloat. Deals fall apart thanks to the aggressive behavior of John Fanning and Bill Bales, who is ousted by the company. Richardson eventually has to settle for Hummer Winblad, one of the valley’s least successful VC firms. In the midst of this chaos, Napster is hit with another copyright-infringement lawsuit – this time from Metallica. The Napster circus peaks when Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich personally delivers to the Napster offices the names of over 300,000 Napster users who have violated the band’s copyrights. Dozens of Metallica fans – now Napster maniacs – join the scene to protest the band they once loved. Shawn Fanning is now at war with his favorite band.
Before Napster even exists, the first known pirated mp3 is the 1996 Metallica song “Until It Sleeps,” delivered from pirate to pirate on four 3.5” floppy disks. Much of the music available on Napster originates among the loosely affiliated online pirate crews known as “The Scene,” who compete against each other to be the first to leak new music. At a CD pressing plant in North Carolina, one Scene agent oversees the heist of hundreds of CDs. Workers hide away surplus copies of The Eminem Show or The Blueprint that are meant to be destroyed, then stash them behind their oversized belt buckles to fool metal detectors at the exits. Days or even hours later, the album makes its way to Napster, weeks before it appears in stores.
…AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
Napster blocks the users named by Metallica, but it barely makes a difference. The system now has 20 million users, and Shawn and his engineers have to race to install new servers to keep up with the traffic before the system falls apart. Napster gets a new CEO, lawyer Hank Barry, who testifies alongside Lars Ulrich in a Senate hearing on copyright infringement put together by Senator Orrin Hatch. John Fanning, looking to capitalize on Napster’s notoriety, tries to start a company to do for movies what Napster does for music. His business plan is terrible, and his tech is even worse, and he ends up making enemies of Hollywood stars like Danny DeVito in the process. As the RIAA trial approaches, Napster hires celebrity litigator David Boies to represent them. But Boies’s arguments that Napster isn’t responsible for the songs shared on its system fall flat against the prosecution’s smoking gun: emails from Sean Parker that make it clear he knows the users are trading pirated music. A judge issues a preliminary injunction: Napster now has 48 hours to remove all infringing material, or shut down.
The RIAA may defeat Napster – but that won’t stop pirated music. Justin Frankel, the hacker responsible for the mp3 player Winamp (and a friend of Shawn’s), develops a file-sharing program called Gnutella. Unlike Napster, Gnutella has no centralized server that can be shut down. When Frankel releases Gnutella on his website, his employer AOL demands that he take it down. But the code is leaked – possibly by Frankel himself – and it becomes the basis for LimeWire, Kazaa, and a host of other open-source file-sharing programs that eventually overtake and outlive Napster. The RIAA resorts to suing individual users of these programs to make an example of them, but only ends up making itself the villain.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
At the last minute, the preliminary injunction is stayed by the Ninth Circuit court of appeals. Napster has a temporary reprieve, but the damage is done. Parker resigns in disgrace. He is 20 years old, ousted from a company he founded, and incredibly depressed. He puts his energy into writing a book about the experience. John Fanning continues to attempt to raise money to fund a new company, but he is hounded by legal troubles and becomes an expert at avoiding creditors. Publicity from the trial swells Napster’s user base, and Shawn Fanning finds himself presenting at award shows, named “my future husband” by Courtney Love, and commiserating backstage with Napster fan Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. As the Ninth Circuit court deliberates, Napster announces an unusual deal: a $20 million loan from Bertelsmann, the parent company of BMG, one of the record companies suing Napster. A new Bertelsmann-affiliated CEO takes over, and Shawn’s engineers begin developing a legal version of Napster. But that new Napster will never be released. The Ninth Circuit upholds the lower court’s ruling. Napster has one final chance to stay alive, by developing a filter that will weed out every copyrighted track on the service.
Napster is a turning point in the history of the internet – and the tug of war between Shawn and John Fanning represents one of the defining conflicts of the internet. Shawn believes that information and resources should be free and open to everyone. John wants to harness technological advancements for profit. That same conflict is playing out today in the debate over net neutrality, and peer-to-peer networks have been at the center of the debate. In 2007, Comcast internet subscribers file a complaint with the FCC alleging that Comcast is “throttling” internet bandwidth for users of P2P networks like BitTorrent.
Napster’s engineers build an incredible filtering program, hiring an army of temps to search and block dozens of variations on popular artists’ names, but they can’t guarantee 100% success. On July 1, 2001, the Napster servers are shut off. In the wake of the shutdown, Bertelsmann, with Shawn’s help, makes a play to buy Napster outright, and John Fanning tries to stage a coup to take over the company. Neither ploy works. In November of 2002, the Napster name and logo are auctioned off. The company started by two teenage hackers is dead. But the revolution they started is taking off. Gnutella and other decentralized peer-to-peer services soon overtake Napster’s user base and pave the way for BitTorrent and the blockchain technology that powers Bitcoin. Steve Jobs and Apple corner the legal music-downloading market with the iPod and the iTunes store. With CD sales in freefall since 2000, the record industry is forced to adapt to the new reality or die. Sean Parker goes on to play central roles in the rise of Facebook and Spotify, which finally delivers on Napster’s promise of a legal, all-encompassing digital jukebox. The intense crucible of Napster makes Shawn wiser and more mature. He starts a number of tech companies, though none have had the impact of his first one. And John Fanning, who makes more money off of Napster than his nephew, thanks to his stock sales, is still hustling, and still presents himself to the world as the founding chairman of Napster.
The death of Napster inspires another teenager, Daniel Ek of Sweden, to develop the idea for Spotify. When he meets investor Sean Parker seven years later, he has a startling realization – he had chatted frequently with Parker, under the alias “Napshon,” during Napster’s heyday. The core of Napster, and everything that follows, is the connection between people. After Napster, we live in a world where everything is on demand. Anything you want – a song, a movie, even someone to drive you around in their own car – can be ordered with a few taps on a phone.