Shawn Fanning

You’re 18, and you only learned how to use a computer a couple of years ago. But programming seems to be right up your alley. So you drop out of Northeastern University, buy a do-it-yourself textbook, pound your straight-A brain through a series of all-nighters and invent the single most popular program on the Internet today. If you’re Shawn Fanning (nicknamed the Napster by your high school buddies because of those fuzzy ringlets under that ratty old baseball cap), your invention enables 38 million people to share their CD collections over the Net—and makes those who aren’t scoring royalties spinning mad.

“I don’t know if you’ve followed the court case,” says Fanning at Napster’s offices in Redwood City, Calif., “but we’ve been sued by a few record companies.” To cyberlibertarians such as former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which seeks to protect freedom of expression on the Internet, Fanning is a revolutionary akin to the patriots who dumped British tea into Boston Harbor. So to prevent future rabble-rousing, says Barlow, the record industry is conspiring to “hang Shawn Fanning in the public square.” Or—maybe the same thing—they’re going to own him. In October media giant Bertelsmann announced it was joining with Fanning to develop a for-profit music-sharing service. (This despite its subsidiary BMG’s being part of a lawsuit against Napster.) As Andreas Schmidt, Bertelsmann’s e-commerce chief says, “Shawn Fanning is one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen.” The Napster is 20 now, and he finally had to buy a suit—to wear to court.

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