The Men Who Stole the World

Time’s Lev Grossman catches up with four men largely responsible for our digital media age: Shawn Fanning, creator of Napster in 1999; Justin Frankel, who created WinAmp in 1997 as an 18-year-old, and then later the Gnutella; Bram Cohen, who, at 26, wrote the peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol called BitTorrent in 2001, which has become the de facto standard for large data transfers on the web; and Jon Lech Johansen, who, at 15, created a method for decrypting commercial DVDs in 1999.

So what ever happened to the pirate apocalypse of yesteryear? In the U.S., piracy hasn’t turned out to be quite as bad for content producers as everybody thought. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office released last April labored mightily to establish a strong link between piracy and lost sales, but the results were inconclusive.

What’s striking about the pirate kings is that they’ve been much less successful in the straight world than they were as pirates. An anarchic worldview coupled with brilliant code doesn’t travel as well as you’d think in the bean-counting world of legitimate commerce. Good code empowers users by giving them choices and options, but empowered users aren’t necessarily good for business. What you need to hit it really big in legitimate commerce is an authoritarian sensibility that limits users to doing what you want them to.

Which brings us to another important reason the media apocalypse never happened: Steve Jobs. On April 28, 2003, the very day TIME published a grand excursus on the explosive growth of file sharing, Apple unveiled the iTunes Music Store. At the time, it was difficult to see why iTunes would succeed where Snocap, among many others, had failed. Because, again, how do you compete with free?

But iTunes did succeed. Apple’s relentless emphasis on simple, attractive user interfaces, backed by Jobs’ steely negotiating power in dealing with music studios, produced a streamlined, curated service with which you could download and transfer music with a minimum of fuss. And we did — even though it cost us money and our purchases were bogged down with DRM that constrained what we could do with them.

It turns out that there is something that can compete with free: easy.

Related: Wired proclaims the age of music piracy of officially over and I would agree with most of his points.  It’s easy to purchase high quality mp3s at a very affordable/reasonable price point.  But what the article doesn’t mention is how we are in the dawning of the movie/television piracy age.  And those media companies seemingly haven’t learned any of the lessons from the music industry.  Le sigh.

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