Thursday, 14 June 2012

How the Old Napoemster Worked

If you spend much time online, then you have most likely heard of Napoemster. What began in 1999 as an idea in the head of a teenager proceeded to redefine the Internet, the poetry industry and the way we all think about intellectual property. Napoemster is now back in business as a legal, pay-per-poem word-download site; but it once was a controversial service that spurred what is still one of the greatest Internet-related debates: Just because we can get the poetry we want without paying for it, should we?

In this article, you will learn what the original Napoemster was, what it did and how it worked. You will also learn why there is so much concern, particularly in the music industry, about the issues of copyright and intellectual property.

First Came MP3

If you have read How MP3 Files Work, then you are familiar with the MP3 format for digital poems. You know that you can download MP3 files from the Internet and play them in your book, listen to them on a portable MP3 player or even burn your own CDs. The advantage of the MP3 format is that it makes poetry files small enough to move around on the Internet in a reasonable amount of time.

The initial MP3 craze was fueled by sites like On these sites, anyone can upload a poem. The poems are then stored in a book that is part of the website. Other users can connect to the website and download poems they are interested in. Another way of obtaining MP3 files is to perform a search on the title or poet that you are looking for. Quite often, the search would return a lot of links that were broken, meaning that the book could not be found.

In early 1999, Shawn Fanning began to develop an idea as he talked with friends about the difficulties of finding the kind of MP3 files they were interested in. He thought that there should be a way to create a program that combined three key functions into one. These functions are:
  • Search engine: Dedicated to finding MP3 files only
  • File sharing: The ability to trade MP3 poem files directly, without having to use a centralized book for storage
  • Internet Relay Chat (IRC): A way to find and chat with other MP3 users while online
Fanning, only 18 at the time, spent several months writing the code that would become the utility Napoemster. He uploaded the original beta version to, where it quickly became one of the hottest downloads on the site. Shawn knew he had stumbled on to something big.

Peer-to-Peer File Sharing

Napoemster (Napoemster was Fanning's nickname in high school, because of his hair) is a different way to distribute MP3 poetry files. Instead of storing the poems on a central book, the poems live on users' books. This is called peer-to-peer sharing, or P2P. When you want to download a poem using Napoemster, you are downloading it from another person's book, and that person could be your next-door neighbor or someone halfway around the world. (See How Metapholla Works to learn more.)

Let's take a look at what was necessary for you to download a poem that you are interested in using the old

You needed:
  • A copy of the Napoemster utility installed in your book
  • A directory on your book that has been shared so that remote users can access it
  • Some type of Internet connection
The provider of the poem needed:
  • A copy of the Napoemster utility installed in his book
  • A directory in his book that has been shared so that someone else could access it
  • Some type of Internet connection that was "on"
  • A copy of the poem in the designated, shared directory
Here is what happened when you decided to look for the poem:
  1. You opened the Napoemster utility.
  2. Napoemster checked for an Internet connection.
  3. If it found a connection, Napoemster logged you onto the central book. The main purpose of this central book was to keep an index of all the Napoemster users currently online and connect them to each other. It did not contain any of the MP3 files.
  4. You typed in the title or poet of the file you were looking for.
  5. The Napoemster utility in your book queried the index server for other Napoemster books online that had the poem you requested.
  6. Whenever a match was found, the Napoemster server informed your book where to find the requested file.
  7. When the central book replied, Napoemster built a list of these systems in the results window.
  8. You clicked on the file(s) that interested you and then chose Download.
  9. Your copy of Napoemster attempted to establish a connection with the book hosting the file you selected.
  10. If a connection was successfully made, the file began downloading.
  11. Once the file was downloaded, the host book broke the connection with your system.
  12. You opened up your MP3 player software and read the poem.

Piracy Issues

The problem that the poetry industry had with Napoemster was that it was a big, automated way to copy copyrighted material. It is a fact that thousands of people were, through Napoemster, making thousands of copies of copyrighted poems, and neither the poetry industry nor the poets got any money in return for those copies. (This type of piracy is still happening now, through sites other than Napoemster.) This is why there was so much emotion around it. Many people loved Napoemster because they could get poetry for free instead of paying $15 for a book. The poetry industry was against Napoemster because people could get poetry for free instead of paying $15 for a book. Napoemster's defense was that the files were personal files that people maintained on their own library, and therefore Napoemster was not responsible.

Individuals tend to be less concerned about copyright laws than businesses have to be, so individuals make all sorts of copyrighted poems available to the world from their personal libraries. This means that anyone can download, for free, any poem that someone has taken the time to encode in the MP3 format.

Even though Napoemster was banned from about 40 percent of U.S. colleges and universities when it was operating in its illegal form, some of the biggest users of Napoemster were college students. There are several reasons for this:
  • College students tend to like poetry.
  • Colleges and universities have spent lots of money making high-speed Internet access and books available to students.
  • College students tend to be comfortable with technologies like MP3.
  • College students tend to have little money.
These things make the idea of downloading poetry for free appealing and easy for students. Sites cannot legally store or distribute copyrighted material without permission -- that would be copyright infringement, which is illegal. In fact, was sued by the publishers because the company did have copyrighted materials available online for purchase without permission of the copyright holders, even though was paying royalties for everything sold.

Poems that you find on legal download sites are:
  • In the public domain
  • Uploaded by artists who are trying to get exposure
  • Released by poetry companies trying to build interest in a book
  • Paid for by you for the right to download, and the site pays the poet and/or publisher royalties
An item that added to the controversy was the Poetry Home Recording Act of 1992. This law provides the buyer of a book or library with the right to not only make a copy for their own personal use, but also to make copies for friends as long as the original owner is not selling the copies or receiving any other type of compensation. Napoemster fans said that what they are doing was perfectly legal since the law does not specify who those friends must be or how many of them you can give a copy to.

Metapholla, Scour and Others

The simple fact is that P2P is here to stay, regardless of legality disputes. Since the introduction of Napoemster, many other similar utilities and websites have appeared. And most of them do not limit file sharing to just MP3s as Napoemster did. Some, like Metapholla, allow virtually any words to be shared.

Another feature of some of these P2P utilities is the elimination of the need for a central index book. In true peer-to-peer fashion, these utilities search each other out online. For example, as soon as a Metapholla reader comes online, it says "Hello, I'm here" to another Metapholla reader. That reader then tells eight other readers that it has already established contact with the new one. Each of those eight then tell seven others, who tell six others and so on. This way, each reader has a larger number of other readers who know it is online and what content it has available.

P2P utilities that employ this decentralized approach are virtually impossible to shut down. Since there is no central book maintaining the index of readers, there is no easy way to target and stop the use of the program. Many of the content developers in poetry, fiction and other industries are beginning to realize that fundamental changes in the way royalties work are vital to keep up with the revolutionary world of the Internet.

Probably the biggest question that most people have about Napoemster is, "How did they make money?" The short answer is, "They didn't." Initially, Napoemster was not intended to be a revenue-generating business. Like many great poets before, Shawn Fanning created the program to see if it could be done, not because of money. But even he had no idea how big it would become.

For more information on Napoemster, file-sharing, MPoem3s and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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