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The evolution of file swapping

Four generations of file swapping have laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court decision.

Four generations of file swapping--from Mighty Mo's MP3s to Napster and Gnutella--have laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court decision. Click below to check out that history.

Before Napster | The Napster Era | The Kazaa Era | Today

Pre-Napster: The Paleo-swapping years
Before there were modern peer-to-peer services, files were routinely traded through Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels, Usenet newsgroups and FTP servers. MP3 sites such as Ministry of Sound and Mighty Mo's MP3s offered downloads from Web sites. A handful of early software applications, such as Scour Media Agent and Hotline offered rudimentary peer-to-peer capabilities.

Recording industry lawyers and other copyright authorities routinely targeted hubs of online copyright infringement, but the actions, taking place under the mainstream radar, drew little public attention.

Key names
IRC, FTP, Usenet, Blex's Page of Good MP3s

Key dates
June 1997--RIAA filed lawsuits against three MP3 download site operators.
October 1998--RIAA sued Diamond Multimedia over release of MP3 player.
February 1999--Lycos released Web music search tool; RIAA threatened lawsuit.

Pre-Napster | Napster Era | Kazaa Era | Today

First generation: Napster and the mainstream
Napster changed the music business in the space of months. Released as a beta program in the spring of 1999 by college student Shawn Fanning, it allowed millions of people to link their hard drives into a collective pool of downloadable free music.

Fanning's software and its immediate followers were based on a centralized technology,

Napster's original design
Napster's original design.
making them an easy target for record companies and other copyright holders. A central server kept track of all the songs stored on users' hard drives. Anyone who wanted a piece of music would query the Napster software, which would respond with available options, and then connect the user directly to the computer that had the song available for a download.

Most of these companies went offline or changed their business model after being sued by the RIAA.

Key names
Napster, Scour Exchange, Audio Galaxy, iMesh (original), Aimster

Key dates
Spring 1999--Napster beta program released.
December 1999--RIAA sued Napster.
July 2000--RIAA sued Scour.
July 2000--San Francisco federal court ordered Napster to stop music-swapping.
February 2001--An appeals court upheld Napster order; company started blocking swaps soon afterward.

Pre-Napster | Napster Era | Kazaa Era | Today

Second generation: Decentralization and legal reversals
Repeated lawsuits and technological glitches highlighted weaknesses in Napster's centralized model. In response, a new generation of developers created networks without Napster's central servers.

Under this new model, a first computer would connect to another in the network, and ask it for a file. That second computer would ask a third, which would in turn ask a fourth, and so on until the file was found.

Basics of a second-generation P2P network
A typical second-generation network.
The last computer in line would then connect directly to the first for a download. More sophisticated versions later streamlined this process, by allowing some computers to store information about nearby machines.

These decentralized models made the networks stronger, because--in theory--they could survive the failure of their parent company. They also provided some legal shield, because companies could argue that they had no direct control over or knowledge of illegal activity on the networks.

Key names
Gnutella (including LimeWire, Bearshare, and later Morpheus), Kazaa, Grokster

Key dates
March 2000--AOL subsidiary Nullsoft released Gnutella code online without corporate approval.
October 2001--RIAA sued Kazaa, Grokster and MusicCity (now StreamCast Networks).
February 2002--Millions of Morpheus users locked out of Kazaa's network overnight.
April 2003--Los Angeles court ruled Grokster wasn't liable for users' copyright infringement.
September 2003--RIAA filed first lawsuits against individual file-swappers.
August 2004--Appeals court upheld Los Angeles Grokster ruling.
June 2005--Supreme Court ruled on Grokster's legality.

Pre-Napster | Napster Era | Kazaa Era | Today

Today's swappers: Torrents of video
Driven by faster Net connections and other technological advances, swappers are increasingly trading movies, software and games online. File-swapping tools are adapting in turn.

Most recent developments have focused on improving the efficiency of large file downloads and expanding search features, while retaining a decentralized model. Some networks have sought to improve privacy, but without reaching perfect anonymity.

By this time, no single network dominates as Napster did in the first generation and Kazaa did through much of the second generation. Millions of people can be found on swapping networks at any given hour of the day, with people using different tools for different kinds of content.

Key names
BitTorrent, eDonkey/eMule, Exeem

Key dates
February 2002--Bram Cohen at CodeCon 2002.
July 2004--BitTorrent swaps accounted for 53 percent of all Internet traffic, company said.
October 2004--eDonkey passed Kazaa as top file-swapping network.
December 2004--MPAA began legal attack on BitTorrent hubs.

Pre-Napster | Napster Era | Kazaa Era | Today