How the Old Napster Worked

By: Jeff Tyson

If you spend much time online, then you have most likely heard of Napster. What began in 1999 as an idea in the head of a teenager proceeded to redefine the Internet, the music industry and the way we all think about intellectual property. Napster is now back in business as a legal, pay-per-song music-download site; but it once was a controversial service that spurred what is still one of the greatest Internet-related debates: Just because we can get the music we want without paying for it, should we?

In this article, you will learn what the original Napster was, what it did and how it worked. You will also learn why there is so much concern, particularly in the music industry, about the issues of copyright and intellectual property.


First Came MP3

If you have read How MP3 Files Work, then you are familiar with the MP3 format for digital music. You know that you can download MP3 files from the Internet and play them on your computer, listen to them on a portable MP3 player or even burn your own CDs. The advantage of the MP3 format is that it makes song files small enough to move around on the Internet in a reasonable amount of time.

The initial MP3 craze was fueled by sites like On these sites, anyone can upload a song. The songs are then stored on a server that is part of the Web site. Other users can connect to the Web site and download songs they are interested in. Another way of obtaining MP3 files is to perform a search on the title or artist that you are looking for. Quite often, the search would return a lot of links that were broken, meaning that the Web page could not be found.


In early 1999, Shawn Fanning began to develop an idea as he talked with friends about the difficulties of finding the kind of MP3 files they were interested in. He thought that there should be a way to create a program that combined three key functions into one. These functions are:

  • Search engine: Dedicated to finding MP3 files only
  • File sharing: The ability to trade MP3 files directly, without having to use a centralized server for storage
  • Internet Relay Chat (IRC): A way to find and chat with other MP3 users while online

Fanning, only 18 at the time, spent several months writing the code that would become the utility Napster. He uploaded the original beta version to, where it quickly became one of the hottest downloads on the site. Shawn knew he had stumbled on to something big.


Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

Napster (Napster was Fanning's nickname in high school, because of his hair) is a different way to distribute MP3 files. Instead of storing the songs on a central computer, the songs live on users' machines. This is called peer-to-peer sharing, or P2P. When you want to download a song using Napster, you are downloading it from another person's machine, and that person could be your next-door neighbor or someone halfway around the world. (See How Gnutella Works to learn more.)

Let's take a look at what was necessary for you to download a song that you are interested in using the old


You needed:

  • A copy of the Napster utility installed on your computer
  • A directory on your computer that has been shared so that remote users can access it
  • Some type of Internet connection

The provider of the song needed:

  • A copy of the Napster utility installed on his computer
  • A directory on his computer that has been shared so that someone else could access it
  • Some type of Internet connection that was "on"
  • A copy of the song in the designated, shared directory

Here is what happened when you decided to look for the song:

  1. You opened the Napster utility.
  2. Napster checked for an Internet connection.
  3. If it found a connection, Napster logged you onto the central server. The main purpose of this central server was to keep an index of all the Napster users currently online and connect them to each other. It did not contain any of the MP3 files.
  4. You typed in the title or artist of the song you were looking for.
  5. The Napster utility on your computer queried the index server for other Napster computers online that had the song you requested.
  6. Whenever a match was found, the Napster server informed your computer where to find the requested file.
  7. When the server replied, Napster built a list of these systems in the results window.
  8. You clicked on the file(s) that interested you and then chose Download.
  9. Your copy of Napster attempted to establish a connection with the system hosting the file you selected.
  10. If a connection was successfully made, the file began downloading.
  11. Once the file was downloaded, the host computer broke the connection with your system.
  12. You opened up your MP3 player software and listened to the song.


Piracy Issues

The problem that the music industry had with Napster was that it was a big, automated way to copy copyrighted material. It is a fact that thousands of people were, through Napster, making thousands of copies of copyrighted songs, and neither the music industry nor the artists got any money in return for those copies. (This type of piracy is still happening now, through sites other than Napster.) This is why there was so much emotion around it. Many people loved Napster because they could get music for free instead of paying $15 for a CD. The music industry was against Napster because people could get music for free instead of paying $15 for a CD. Napster's defense was that the files were personal files that people maintained on their own machines, and therefore Napster was not responsible.

Individuals tend to be less concerned about copyright laws than businesses have to be, so individuals make all sorts of copyrighted songs available to the world from their personal machines. This means that anyone can download, for free, any song that someone has taken the time to encode in the MP3 format.


Even though Napster was banned from about 40 percent of U.S. colleges and universities when it was operating in its illegal form, some of the biggest users of Napster were college students. There are several reasons for this:

  • College students tend to like music.
  • Colleges and universities have spent lots of money making high-speed Internet access and computers available to students.
  • College students tend to be comfortable with technologies like MP3.
  • College students tend to have little money.

These things make the idea of downloading music for free appealing and easy for students. Sites cannot legally store or distribute copyrighted material without permission -- that would be copyright infringement, which is illegal. In fact, was sued by the record companies because the company did have copyrighted materials available online for purchase without permission of the copyright holders, even though was paying royalties for everything sold.

Songs that you find on legal download sites are:

  • In the public domain
  • Uploaded by artists who are trying to get exposure
  • Released by record companies trying to build interest in a CD
  • Paid for by you for the right to download, and the site pays the artist and/or record company royalties

An item that added to the controversy was the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992. This law provides the buyer of a CD or cassette with the right to not only make a copy for their own personal use, but also to make copies for friends as long as the original owner is not selling the copies or receiving any other type of compensation. Napster fans said that what they are doing was perfectly legal since the law does not specify who those friends must be or how many of them you can give a copy to.


Gnutella, Scour and Others

The simple fact is that P2P is here to stay, regardless of legality disputes. Since the introduction of Napster, many other similar utilities and Web sites have appeared. And most of them do not limit file sharing to just MP3s as Napster did. Some, like Gnutella, allow virtually anything to be shared.

Another feature of some of these P2P utilities is the elimination of the need for a central index server. In true peer-to-peer fashion, these utilities search each other out online. For example, as soon as a Gnutella client comes online, it says "Hello, I'm here" to another Gnutella client. That client then tells eight other clients that it has already established contact with the new one. Each of those eight then tell seven others, who tell six others and so on. This way, each client has a larger number of other clients who know it is online and what content it has available.


P2P utilities that employ this decentralized approach are virtually impossible to shut down. Since there is no central server maintaining the index of users, there is no easy way to target and stop the use of the program. Many of the content developers in music, video and other industries are beginning to realize that fundamental changes in the way royalties and licensing work are vital to keep up with the revolutionary world of the Internet.

Probably the biggest question that most people have about Napster is, "How did they make money?" The short answer is, "They didn't." Initially, Napster was not intended to be a revenue-generating business. Like many great inventors before, Shawn Fanning created the program to see if it could be done, not because of money. But even he had no idea how big it would become.

For more information on Napster, file-sharing, MP3s and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

Why Napster was shut down?
Napster was shut down due to copyright infringement.
Did Napster go to jail?
No, since he was a minor he was only sentenced to community service.