Doug Bonderud

Oct 16th 2019

Technology in the 2000s: Of Codecs and Copyrights


From space travel to the World Wide Web, email to nanoscale robots, humanity’s constant drive for improvement and innovation has changed the course of history. So hop aboard and get comfortable — the time machine is all fired up and ready to relive the top scientific discoveries of decades past. Let’s go!

We’ve gone to the moon, personalized the computer, and dialed in on cellular tech. Today’s destination? Software technology in the 2000s. Known for Y2K scares, the new millennium’s first decade was also the launchpad for a digital revolution: music downloads.

Sharing Is Caring

Early 2000s music listeners toted CDs and portable CD players. As noted by The Next Web, a 700MB CD could fit a full-length album and CD “rippers” made it possible to transfer digital disc files to personal computers.

But with the average song landing around 42mb and a Nov. 1st, 2000, article from CNN noting that “the vast majority of users” were still tapping 56 kbps dial-up connections, downloading a single song took three hours minimum. Fortunately, there was a ’90s software technology tailor-made for the job: the MP3.

MP3’s are a type of codec — a portmanteau of COmpressing and DECompresssing — used to shrink the size of audio files. According to The Conversation, MP3s were developed by Fraunhofer IIS and Technicolor and standardized by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). The name is a shortened form of MPEG-1, Audio Layer 3. Released in 1993, MP3s found little traction against both MP2 and AAC formats, despite their ability to achieve 12:1 compression ratios with acceptable sound quality.

But in 1999, all that changed.

Wake Me Up (Before You Download)

While MP3s made it possible to share audio files quickly, users lacked a central repository to store and search for specific tracks or albums. Enter Napster, the brainchild of Sean Parker along with brothers Shawn and John Fanning. This peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing network was a simple software application that let users find and share the music they loved. As noted by LifeWire, more than 80 million users created accounts during Napster’s first two years.

Napster’s downfall was rampant piracy. Many users weren’t aware (or didn’t care) about music ownership rights and royalties, and in 2001 the service was shut down after a protracted court battle with the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA). But users with a taste for the sweet simplicity of MP3 sharing weren’t about to go down easy — services such as Gnutella provided the infrastructure for sharing clients like BearShare, LimeWire and Morpheus. LimeWire in particular was extremely popular, with estimates suggesting it was installed on one-third of computers worldwide during the height of the P2P craze. Not surprisingly, court battles (and P2P losses) continued throughout the early 2000s.

Revenue Streams

While no one likes stories where Goliath wins, the RIAA had a point: Napster, LimeWire and other P2P services didn’t have the rights to distribute the vast majority of their digital files. For their part, these services argued they weren’t the ones doing anything wrong. They simply provided a platform and users were the ones committing copyright crimes.

This should be the end of our technology in the 2000s story — music file sharing was great for convenience, bad for copyright and that’s all she wrote. And for a while, it was. Companies began selling digital files, and MP3 players like the original iPod appeared on store shelves. Buying digital music began to replace the purchase of CDs just as discs muscled out tapes.

But the rapid growth of broadband internet and megabit-per-second transfer rates conspired to create a new revenue opportunity: streaming. Leveraging a combination of audio codec, media server and media player application programming interfaces (APIs), streaming applications backed by large record labels and artist groups offered to let users listen to almost any song, any time, anywhere. The caveat? Instead of being downloaded, files were sent via cellular or Wi-Fi data paths. Costs came down — many popular streaming services now charge $10 — $15 per month for full access to music catalogs — and audio fidelity increased.

I’m With the Band(width)

When Napster hit the internet in 1999, no one could have predicted its meteoric rise. Its epic fall was an easy mark, but the legacy of music downloading software has fundamentally changed the technology landscape.

Streaming is the most obvious downstream consequence: Both audio and video file streaming is now commonplace in homes and businesses as users expect on-demand access to the content they want, when they want it. But this musical interlude continues to shape the future of internet use: As noted by Scientific American, global internet traffic is growing by 22% per year — and providers are struggling to keep up. Emerging bandwidth demands stem in no small part from the myriad of MP3s exchanged across early-aught P2P pirating sites more concerned with connecting users than obtaining digital rights.

Put simply? Media files of all types and sizes — from single tracks to feature-length movies — are now consumable, convenient and (mostly) sold under copyright. And it’s all thanks to the chart-toppers of post-2000 pop music.