How does Napster work and why is there such a huge fight around it right now?

If you have read the HSW article entitled 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. However, the sites cannot legally store or distribute copyrighted material -- that would be copyright infringement, which is illegal. So all of the songs that you find on (and sites like it) are either public domain songs, songs uploaded by artists who are trying to get exposure, or songs released by record companies trying to build interest in a CD.


Napster is a different way to distribute MP3 files. Instead of storing the songs on a central computer, the songs live on users's machines. 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. Individuals tend to be less concerned about copyright laws than businesses like 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.

Right now the biggest users of Napster are college students. There are four reasons for this trend:

  • 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

Therefore the idea of downloading music for free is appealing and easy for students.

The problem with Napster is that it is a big, automated way to illegally copy copyrighted material. This is why there is so much emotion around it right now. College students love Napster because they can get music for free instead of paying $15 for a CD. The music industry is against Napster because people can get music for free instead of paying $15 for a CD. Napster's defense is that the files are personal files that people maintain on their own machines, and therefore they are not responsible. But it is a fact that thousands of people are making thousands of copies of copyrighted songs, and neither the music industry nor the artists get any money in return for those copies. That is copyright infringement, and is why Napster has ended up in court.

How this plays out will be extremely interesting to watch. Copyright law has been in place for hundreds of years and works very well. George Lucas has created four Star Wars films, for example, and knows that he will be adequately rewarded for creating more under the current law. However, Internet technology is changing everything, and may create completely new ways for artists to get paid that are comfortable for both artists and fans. If you can invent a comfortable way for any artist to get paid when people view/hear his or her work, you will be a very famous person! You will also enhance the creative process.

This question was so popular that we wrote a whole article on it. Check out How Napster Works for a more comprehensive look at this topic.

Here are some interesting links:


Frequently Answered Questions

What did Napster do wrong?
Napster was a file sharing service that allowed users to share and download music files for free. This was seen as illegal by many, as it allowed users to access copyrighted material without paying for it. This led to a number of lawsuits against Napster, and eventually the company was forced to shut down.