Most people who are old enough probably remember the basic contours of the story, but for a more in-depth look, there’s “Downloaded,” a new documentary about the Napster saga. Directed by Alex Winter- yes, the guy who played Bill in the “Bill and Ted” movies- the film is competently made and provides a largely accurate overview of this crucial chapter in the history of both music and technology.
The film, which played at film festivals earlier this year and will soon debut for broadcast on VH1- is clearly a bit more sympathetic to the pro-Napster rather than anti-Napster side, but we do hear from people on all sides of the controversy, from record industry executives to the Napster principals themselves. We don’t get new interviews with the members of Metallica who warred with Napster, but we do get lots of Lars Ulrich archival footage, which continue Metallica’s unblemished record of never coming across well in a documentary.
We see quite a few people who are still in the news, like Hilary Rosen- the then-RIAA head who made news last year for accusing Mitt Romney’s wife of never having worked a day in her life; Sean Parker, the Napster and Facebook executive last seen defending his lavish wedding; and David Boies, the litigator from the Napster case who successfully argued the Prop 8 case before the Supreme Court.
Napster, in its original incarnation, only lasted for about two years. It was founded in 1999 by Shawn Fanning, a teenager from Massachusetts with no programming training whatsoever, who created the revolutionary file sharing software, essentially, on his own while literally working out of a closet at his uncle’s office. Indeed, the film is full of fun terms from the ’90s Internet, like “dial-up” and “BBS” and “IRC.”
The file-sharing network quickly turned into a company, and the service took off in a huge way, especially on college campuses which soon saw their bandwidth overwhelmed. Others were paying attention- the music world, which realized its revenue model was being obliterated in real time; artists themselves, who knew they’d be affected too, and the consumer electronics industry, led by Apple, which ended up finding a way to monetize music downloads in a way Napster never could.
Indeed, a series of lawsuits and injunctions had put Napster out of business by 2001, although the company continued for ten more years in a series of other incarnations; Best Buy, shockingly, even bought it for $120 million in 2008, before shuttering it a couple of years later.
Napster, much like CraigsList, caused a lot of people to lose money, but not many people to make it, with the exception of lawyers. What may be the movie’s most surprising fact is that Fanning and the other Napster founders made just about no money from the venture. Fanning wouldn’t get a big payday until he founded a gaming company and sold it, many years later.
Whether you were around during the Napster days or not, “Downloaded” is worth a view when it comes on VH1 later this month.