Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Downloaded": the story of Shawn Fanning, Naptster, and "P2P 101".

Downloaded”, directed by Alex Winter, is a documentary about the story of the first incarnation of Napster, the notorious peer-to-peer (P2P)  music file sharing system originally invented by Shawn Fanning in 1999. 
It played to an almost full house Saturday evening May 11 at the Maryland Film Festival, with writeup here
The director told the audience that this story was much better told with the real people than as a narrative with actors (as “The Social Network” was),  Shawn Fanning appears, usually with his buzz cut, at various ages; you can see gradual physical maturation from age 19 to today.  One of the most important aspects of Shawn’s view as his service should have become something that the music industry could use constructively, to promote artists and monetize them. He never saw it as a tool for “piracy”. 

Shawn indeed dropped out of Northeastern University in Boston and holed up in a storefront in the beach community of Hull, MA and coded his dream, at 19, making the cover of Time.  In time, he got support, especially from Sean Parker (the real one, not Justin Timberlake’s impersonation -- note the spelling) , who also undergoes some physical evolution in the film. 
The legal storms came, of course, from the RIAA. The film traces he history of the litigation, and the attempt rescue by Bertelsmann.  The company attempted to convert itself to a subscription service that could screen for copyrights.  But, in the evolution of the litigation, they didn’t do that well enough. Eventually the company went under, and its brand and trademarks were acquired by others. 
The film also traces the history of the music industry.  It had adopted to technology before, with the LP record and CD and had made money off of these innovations.  Record stores had been common, and people collected records and CD’s (as I did with classical music), and later even VHS tapes and then DVD’s.  (Remember the litigation over Betamax in 1984).   Indeed, in that world, people could share and borrow records and CD’s, and probably copy them with taperecorders “illegally” without causing a ruckus if they bought enough original material. (I used to have those discussions with friends in the 1960s).  But the music industry simply stumbled completely over the suddenness of the change that P2P could enforce on it. 
Eventually, the record companies wound up suing individual downloaders, whom it could track tto IP addresses through P2P.  Parents would get phone calls from record companies, shaking them down for settlements for what their kids had done.  Even roommates got sued.

Fanning’s innovation , of P2P, might have been viewed an extension of a broader idea: free entry into self-publishing and gaining recognition, through search engines, competing with established news organizations. 
The entire Internet revolution was in large part facilitated by legislation that limited downstream liability, both in the libel area (Section 230), and Copyright, the DMCA Safe Harbor (of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act),   The film points out the possibility that Napster might have been able to claim DMCA Safe Harbor, and I mentioned this from the audience afterward in the QA.  One complication might have been that Napster didn’t handle the content at all; it just pointed to it.  Another might have been that Napster’s “business model” seemed to be predicated on copyright infringement at the root – which did not prevent it from attracting venture capital in the beginning.  That point would come up in 2005 when the Supreme Court would settle MGM v. Grokster, not mentioned in the film.

Winter told the audience that he is against “thievery”, but that piracy is an ambiguous word. You should pay for content when you can.  (I do order books, CD's, DVD's, even mp3 downloads from Amazon, I do buy hardcopy newspapers and magazines, sometimes. I do subscribe to a couple of paywalls.)  ITunes does have a good idea.   

The Festival offered some free symposia on movie funding (Kickstarter, etc), and the panelists seemed to think that the whole model for how movies are experienced in theaters -- as a feature -- is up for grabs. But it's Regal that says "Go big or go home."  

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