“You cannot build a business on copyright infringement,” points out Ian Rogers, the CEO of Topspin, not too long into Downloaded, director Alex Winter’s too-breezy account of Napster, the teensy app that liberated digital music, destroyed the record industry, and swallowed some $500 million worth of loans and seed money from bubble-age investors convinced that a start-up built to facilitate the free sharing of mostly pirated material was somehow bound to be wildly profitable. What an age that was: Angels expecting huge yields after investing cash into the exact opposite of capitalism.
The doc is only about as revealing as a middling magazine article on the subject. But it will fascinate and frustrate anyone already interested, which, going by Napster’s own high-water mark, is a good 50 million people. Winter introduces the principals, college-age programmers Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, digs into their childhoods, dutifully traces their baby’s rise and fall, and mostly sidesteps the ethics of their attempts to monetize an invention built to let people steal.
Throughout, Fanning, Parker, and other Napster insiders moan about what might have been: If only the record companies had gotten on board and worked with Napster to sell digital music! (The record companies say Napster was never serious about this.) If only Parker hadn’t mentioned in an e-mail obtained by the RIAA that most of Napster’s users were sharing “pirated” music—an e-mail that destroyed the Napster crew’s plausible deniability about just what their tens of millions of users were up to. (I know what they were up to: I was one of them, cramming hard drives full of every record I’d ever wanted to hear but hadn’t had the chance to.)
The rule at Napster’s Silicon Valley HQ, we learn, was to shun the P-word in favor of “sharing.” As the principals chatter about Napster’s promise in archival and present-day footage, it’s almost possible to believe that they believed their own hype—that the free downloading of uncountable songs and albums was, to their minds, incidental to some grander breakthrough in human communication. “Napster’s helping, and not hurting, the recording industry and artists,” CEO Hank Berry testified to credulous senators. Later, we see the company’s lead lawyer, straight-faced, telling the Ninth Circuit district court not to worry about how the technology is being abused—instead ask “what is it capable of being used for?” (The ninth district ruled against them. Napster declined to appeal.) Even in fresh interviews Fanning and co. play dumb about what their brilliant file-swap program actually did: It was about building community, they claim, about helping new artists find an audience. It was, Fanning says, about sharing “emotion.”
It’s to the doc’s discredit that such claims go mostly unchallenged. But it’s a testament to the cultural moment that Napster birthed that many users in 1999 weren’t quite sure if downloading .mp3s was stealing. Winter has dug up an MTV report filmed at Indiana University, which faced student protests after banning Napster. “Are you a pirate?” the correspondent asks a grinning, pro-Napster brunette standing in the doorway of her dorm room. “My roommate does the whole computer thing,” the student says, before hollering, into her room, “Margaret, are you a pirate?” When a judge ruled against Napster in a suit with the RIAA, Fanning indulged in vainglorious populism, warning his users that the feds were trying “to shut Napster down—to shut you down.”
The reunited Napster braintrust is justifiably proud of what they built but still disingenuous about how what they built was used. Instead of pressing his subjects, Winter lets them gas on about what a “fucking super buzzkill” it was to move to corporate offices once the investment money started piling up—a complaint that gets more screentime here than the ethics of filesharing. Archival footage is well-chosen, especially the late ’90s MTV News segments, all canted angles and dirty-fingernailed post-grunge stars, and the Daily Show clips of a young Jon Stewart, who hadn’t yet picked up the habit of yelling everything. Henry Rollins and DJ Spooky offer insight, both seeming to have thought much more about all this than the talking heads we spend the most time with. Noel Gallagher of Oasis shows up, for some reason, probably prompting discussions among the crew about whether he should be subtitled. Metallica (not interviewed by Winter) looks like dicks, even when they’re in the moral right, and there’s much talk about the shittiness of the recording industry, even from people in the recording industry.
The rise of 99-cent song downloads demonstrates that the Napster guys weren’t wrong when they claimed, early on, that the backward-looking music business had to accept that consumers would pay a fair price for convenient online delivery. Nothing in Winter’s doc suggests that they or Bertelsmann SE & Co. (who invested $80 million in the company) were right to believe that Napster could have grown up to be iTunes. How would that have worked? The upstarts who had made everything ever recorded available to anyone with an Internet connection suddenly cutting it all off to sell only the music that they had secured the rights to? Winter plays the failure of this impossible business as a tragedy. As the Napster crew mopes about the money they lost, and brag about all the more legitimate ventures they later founded, they mostly resist the urge to gloat about the victory they actually won: the LimeWires, BearShares, Megauploads, and Pirate Bays, fires that flare up and sputter out, but which all share that ancestral spark, the one struck at that ridiculous moment when the flint of piracy struck the steel of tech money.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 19, 2013