They lined up against the internet upstart. From record company giants under the guise of the Recording Industry Association of America to heavy rockers Metallica, the great, the good and the bad of the music establishment decided that Napster must be stopped.
And when a federal judge issued an injunction, it looked like they had succeeded. But the fact that the site is back online – its users swapping music tracks faster than ever while the founders look at how to form legitimate partnerships with the record companies – offers a number of lessons as to how the network economy works.
For those for whom an MP3 is unpronounceable, here is a brief history of the case. MP3 is a digital file type that compresses audio to small file sizes with very little loss in quality. Whereas downloading CD quality music would take an age, an MP3 track whizzes around the internet at the speed of a medium-sized Word document. And every copy is perfect.
The founders of Napster developed a small piece of software that enabled people who were online to simultaneously search and retrieve MP3s stored on other Napster users' hard drives. Like the university noticeboard which inspired it, Napster facilitated sharing. The record companies, various bands and their IP lawyers did not like it and began a battle that some saw as a Canute-like last stand of an old-media empire.
The battle continues and the geeks at Napster are now talking to record companies about creating secure (and chargeable) systems for music sharing and distribution.
In his book Out of Control, Kevin Kelly, soon to become a new media guru, showed how the natural world made use of complex systems and the "network effect" – ants use it, bees use it, flocking birds use it. In short, the group works as a networked system with its own dynamics beyond any one individual and crucially, the colony generates a network effect where the result is a distributed intelligence greater than the sum of its parts.
Napster's success as a culture, an example of viral marketing and a business opportunity, lies in the network effect enabled by the global connection of millions of users. Like ants building a nest or birds flying in formation without mid-air collisions, the nodes in the network build a global music system with enormous power.
Law firms are not immune from the network effect. High street practices will watch their bread and butter work dissolve across the network as countless network positions qualified or simply experienced network nodes collaborate to create a networked legal practice more powerful and flexible than the monolithic experts of old.
Meanwhile, some big firms are creating intranets, extranet or internet pathways to facilitate business. Those networks serve to increase communication as they connect the players in the legal business. Clients may not cut the firm out of the network but the network effect could well redistribute power.
The network effect is inevitable; the task is not to try to stop it but, like Napster, ride it. A firm that abdicates arrogance and facilitates the operation of networked legal practice and legal business could well find that it reaps the rewards of a distributed intelligence.
Heh, even in the short term it could be in their interests. Just as the judge was giving the record companies a brief victory, a report from research company Jupiter said: "Users of networked music-sharing technologies such as Napster are 45 per cent more likely to have increased their overall music purchasing than non-user."
It's been a good week for…
Jargon Busting – The A to Z of New Media
Storage space for downloaded files. Web browsers keep the data they download from a server in storage on the local machine. This caching speeds up access to frequently visited pages.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)
A development of HTML (the language used for creating web pages) that allows a designer more control over the look of a page and enables them to specify and change styles across an entire site.
The rate at which users leave a service or a site. It is a preoccupation of e-commerce sites frantically looking for the holy grail of "stickiness" which guarantees low churn rates. Likely to increasingly feature in firms' new media musings as more of them create similar online services only a click away from each other.
The number of times a banner advertisement is clicked on and the user taken to the advertiser's site. Clickthrough is likely to be significantly less than the number of times an ad was seen. But many sites sell advertising based on it – the CPM or cost per thousand.
The system where one computer program sends a request to another which fulfils that request. The way in which networks can be so efficient, enabling the exchange of information without keeping the channel open all the time.
The last refuge of a digital designer.
The most overworked, or over-hyped word in new media. It is either an organically grown collection of online users who have built, adopted or more likely grown a corner of cyberspace, or a buzz word thrown into the business plan or PowerPoint presentation.
The situation where distinct media technologies begin to fit together. Similar to hi-fi separates. Something to bear in mind when building a new media strategy based on someone accessing the internet through a PC rather than a product or service that can migrate across convergent media.
The unknown quantity in any new media strategy. Either the ones who ask difficult questions and are not afraid of giving unpopular answers – or not.
From the Greek kybernetes meaning steersman or governor. The term moved from computer science through science fiction to popular culture. Now a prefix attached to any word to signify a certain cultural familiarity or business potential.