Napster: Popular Program Raises Devilish Issues

by Erik Nilsson

Napster, an application that allows people to search for and share MP3 music files, is the hot new Internet application on college campuses. In December 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed suit against Napster, alleging "contributory and vicarious" copyright infringement.

The RIAA argues that Napster is in effect burglar's tools: It is designed to break the law and has no substantial lawful purpose. On the other hand, Napster claims that they are creating an online community, that copyright infringement problems will abate as Napster matures, and that if the RIAA points out any Napster users who are violating copyrights, Napster will kick them off the system.

When 19-year-old Shawn Fanning wrote Napster, he single-handedly created an outstanding network application, but he did much more:

A new name space independent of the Domain Naming Service

The official Internet name space is the Domain Naming Service (DNS). It consists of the familiar domain names, such as "". The DNS translates a name, like, into an Internet address, like Your computer uses this number to do stuff on the Internet, such as retrieve a web page.

Any system that translates names into Internet numbers is a name space. Napster is a name space: When you register on Napster, you assign a name to your computer. When another Napster user wants to communicate with you, the Napster server translates this name into the Internet address of your computer. The Napster server acts as a name server and a search engine, all using proprietary protocols. (The underlying protocols are, of course, the standard Internet protocols.)

Users sign up on a Napster server with whatever name they want to use. Registration is instant, free, and requires no contact or other personal information.

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Napster heralds a new, balkanized Internet that relies less on web browsers.

Napster shows no interest in the trademark issues that have roiled the DNS world, and has no quasi-judicial process to settle name disputes: The first mover gets the name. Even if you don't have a permanent IP address, you can still register on Napster and play, after a fashion.

Napster's search engine searches this name space and links to files, all using proprietary protocols. Napster's chat service also uses this space.

Web browsers have limitations as application interfaces, but they offer compensating advantages of stability and trust. Napster heralds a new, balkanized Internet that relies less on web browsers. This Internet will offer more powerful (and dangerous) services. Unsurprisingly, Napster has substantial security weaknesses.

Napster's name space has limitations, but except for one they are unimportant or easy to fix. These limitation are described below.

You can only use the Napster name space to exchange files and chat, but the Napster system could easily be extended to handle web pages and e-mail, and probably will be soon. Napster already supports subdirectories for files, so it already has significant expressive power.

The DNS is a hierarchical system, with different organizations in charge of different parts of the space. Napster's name space lacks a hierarchy, but the DNS hierarchy is shallow anyway: Most domain names have only two parts, a name, such as "oreilly", and a top-level domain (TLD), such as "com". The DNS hierarchy primarily exists because of political, not technical, requirements. Many web users in the U.S. seem to not know that there are any TLDs besides ".com".The Napster name space will evolve a hierarchy if it needs one. A de-facto hierarchy would not even require a change to Napster.

According to Metallica, over 300,000 people are exchanging MP3s of these has-been butt-rockers via Napster.

Napster's most serious limitation is that it is not possible to link Napster servers. Thus, each server is its own name space; if it crashes, that name space is gone until the server reboots. Napster has hinted that they are working on this problem. The problem is solvable, but some sloppy work in the Napster message protocol makes a fix harder than it should have been.

There are other name spaces. AOL keywords are a kind of name space, but are limited to web pages on AOL's server. There is no way to register your computer's IP address with an AOL keyword, and no way to add new services.

There have been renegade IP name spaces before, but they haven't been important, because almost nobody used them. Lots of people use Napster. According to Metallica, over 300,000 people are exchanging MP3s of these has-been butt-rockers via Napster. The total Napster user base must be many, many times this number.

There is a furious debate over how the DNS system will change in the future. Specifically, there are various plans to add TLDs, with various forces arguing that they should control these new TLDs. Napster makes real what up until now has mostly been a straw man in the DNS debate: The DNS needs the Internet, but the Internet does not need any particular name space. What happens if various entities create their own name spaces? Napster has unchained the dog, and it is one big, bad dog: proprietary, anonymous, and growing like mad.

A segmented copyright violation process

Fanning did this in a way that cleverly pokes and pries at the conceptual weaknesses of current copyright law. A schematic, simplified view of Napster shows how:

So who broke the law? The person downloading the song may know that the song is copyrighted, but must they assume this in all cases? The person making the song available would know the song is copyrighted if they ripped it from a CD. But if they themselves downloaded the song, must they assume that it is copyrighted? Napster is an application, a name space, and a search engine. If each of those things is legal individually, under what circumstances is the collection illegal?

A violation of the law

The courts will have to decide if the law was broken. Napster's terms of use require users to agree not to make available nor download copyrighted material. But if Napster is clean, the music industry is left without any deep pockets to sue, since the "harm" from any single Napster user isn't going to be enough to be worth suing over.

In the absence of other information, what rights position are we to assume regarding content we come into contact with on the Net: the most restrictive rights position possible by any law of any nation, the most permissive such position, or something else? By accident or design, Napster is a powerful vehicle with which to ask this question.

There are no technical barriers to using the Napster approach with any digital data, although there are practical limits for content that must be trusted to be used. Some people see in Napster's devilish logo the coming of the antichrist; others the revolution that will smash the power of greedy record companies. In any case Napster can't be undone with a mere lawsuit. Already, several organizations have set up their own Napster servers, and the whole Napster system would be recreated if the RIAA somehow manages to bomb Napster out of existence. Napster's reply: "For chrissakes, we're still in beta."


Some of the following sites offer software for download. Security issues with Napster clients are not well-researched, but there are known security problems. Furthermore, Napster represents a legally contentious area, so that operators of Napster servers, and perhaps even users of Napster clients, may have the opportunity to engage in activity that may expose them to legal liability. So be careful out there.

Erik Nilsson is president of Insilicos, a life sciences company. A serial entrepreneur, he lives in Seattle with his family.

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