Slipped Disc

updated 08/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/2000 01:00AM

It was a dark day for freebie-loving music fans. On July 26 a federal judge gave Napster, Inc. 48 hours to shut down its wildly popular Web site, which allows computer users to share recorded music with one another over the Internet. Tens of thousands of Napster's claimed 22 million users signed online petitions vowing to boycott CDs; others swamped Napster's Web site in a last-minute scramble for Beatles or Britney Spears cuts. Then, hours before the deadline, an appeals court issued a surprise reprieve. At least until the next round in its legal bout with the record industry, Napster can keep on rockin'.

"It's been a roller coaster," says David Boies, the Microsoft-slaying lawyer who now has the tall task of defending one of Silicon Valley's most controversial—and unlikely—companies. Shawn Fanning, then all of 18, invented Napster's music-sharing software last year, as a freshman at Boston's Northeastern University. It caught on faster than the "Thong Song"—leading Web surfers to hail Fanning as a revolutionary and record-company execs, who charge that Napster's song swappers are pirates, to brand him Public Enemy No. 1. "It's been called the largest mass copyright infringement in history," says Russell Frackman, the lawyer leading the Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuit. (Opening arguments could begin as early as next month.)

Fanning—who attended a July round of Senate hearings into Napster but spends most of his waking hours laboring over computer code at his Redwood City, Calif., office—hardly expected all the ruckus. "I didn't think at the time that the work I would be doing would be such a big deal," he says. And he certainly never dreamed many of music's biggest names would ever know his. Rapper Dr. Dre and drummer Lars Ulrich of Metallica have assailed Napster—Ulrich calls it "old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods"—while such rockers as Courtney Love and Limp Bizkit have rallied to its defense. Napster argues that users wind up buying CDs they sample online. But supporters see it as toppling the old order. Hip-hopper Chuck D says it threatens corporate giants who he claims overcharge music buyers and shortchange artists. "It's going to kill off the dinosaurs," he says gleefully, "and force them to rewrite the way they do business."

Fanning, now 19, notes another consequence: With his close-to-six-figure salary, "I have been able to get my parents out of debt," he says. "That is cool." Reared by mother Coleen, 39, a nurse's aide, and stepfather Raymond Verrier, 39, a truck driver, he and his four younger half siblings spent time on welfare in Brockton, Mass., when Shawn was small (Shawn's father, Joseph Rando, 40, and his mother split shortly after his birth). When Shawn was in sixth grade, his mother and Verrier separated for about a year, and "we went into foster homes for a while," he says. "I don't think about it much. I try to block it out."

Regrouping, they moved to Cape Cod, where Shawn was a straight-A student until, at age 16, he got a computer as a gift from uncle John Fanning, a high-tech entrepreneur. "I dropped everything and became addicted," he says. He headed to college to major in computer science. Bored in class, he set to work on a music-sharing program and put it on his Web site in early 1999. "It was a technical challenge," he says.

Named for a tag the curly-haired teen picked up in high school, Napster quickly became the rage of the high-tech set; several colleges banned it when its popularity overwhelmed their networks. John Fanning, 37, wooed investors for the fledgling company (it has raised $15 million so far, though it has no revenues), and last October it set up shop in Silicon Valley.

While Napster's legal future is cloudy, several newer, harder-to-regulate file-sharing programs have sprung up to carry the torch. As for Shawn, who owns an undisclosed stake in the 40-employee outfit, "I'm just trying to stay focused on writing code," he says. To unwind from up-to-15-hour days, "I play around on the guitar, go to the gym," or he steps out with a new girlfriend he declines to name. Whatever happens to Napster, don't worry about him. "I have a lot more ideas," he says.

Samantha Miller
Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles

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