Downloaded does not seem like a documentary anyone really needs, as it chronicles a story we lived through only a decade ago. More specifically, the film primarily tracks the rise and fall of Napster, the software that brought peer-to-peer file sharing to the mainstream and threatened to irrevocably destroy the record industry. We may not know the intimate details, but we all know the story’s broad strokes — Napster was started by Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, it blew up beyond anyone’s expectations, and it was litigated into bankruptcy by the music labels. Parker went on to be portrayed by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network and Fanning went on to be referenced as the purportedly thieving college roommate of Seth Green’s Lyle in The Italian Job. Downloaded does a good job of telling this story well, including filling in the lines between those broad strokes, and while it may not be a documentary that anyone needs now, it turns out to be a well-made chronicle of an important historical moment.
In telling this story, Downloaded is divided into a number of chapters, with the largest sections of the film focusing on Napster’s post-launch growth and the legal morass that led to its untimely demise. Talking heads abound, not just from Fanning and Parker, but from other Napster employees and execs, several at-the-time record label CEOs, and many other players in the story. Intercut with a slew of media clips showing the cultural impact of Napster’s rise, legal battle and fall, the whole thing manages to tell the story in a way that feels more personal than academic. It’s a well-crafted documentary, perhaps surprising given that it comes from Alex Winter, best known as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’s Bill S. Preston, Esq. There are a lot of traps that would have been easy to fall into which Winter deftly avoids. For example, Winter provides just enough back story on Fanning to provide context without turning it into a biopic.
Winter also avoids portraying the RIAA and music labels as mere black hat villains. He contextualizes the record labels’ history, briefly showing how they originally rose from a means of facilitating phonograph sales and how they were utterly blindsided by Napster’s implications. As one label head put it, the labels and the RIAA were used to dealing with infringement in the thousands, but this was piracy in the tens of millions: “There was no awareness that something like this was coming, all the content in one place.” The labels were terrified and have always had control issues so, with the exception of BMG, they wanted to protect their business model by simply shutting this whole thing down as quickly as possible (as BMG’s CEO explains it, he recognized the potential here, evidenced by BMG’s subsequent $80 million investment in Napster while everyone else was trying to sue the company into the ground). To be sure, there is no question that the industry was on the wrong side of history on this one, but Napster was also about massive copyright infringement as a new technology clashed with an old business model, and Downloaded shows that this fight, as most fights, is not as black and white as either side would have it.
Speaking of that fight, Winter also spends a surprising (but appropriate) amount of time digging into the ethical and legal issues without bogging the film down with them. With clips from senate hearings, discussions of each phase of the legal battle, and talking heads from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Lawrence Lessig among others, the documentary provides an interesting discussion of copyright piracy that is less boring than my law school copyright class. In fact, one of the best moments of the entire films comes when one of the folks who used to work at Napster provides some revealing criticism of their legal team, particularly a well-known (in some circles) lawyer who he thinks turned the case into a disaster. It’s a rare moment of candor, and Winter manages to get such revealing truth from almost all of his interview subjects.
Downloaded is an important documentary, not for today, but for tomorrow. Napster, as a company, is one of the biggest failures ever — taking in over $100 million in investment funding, the company never figured out how to monetize its services (its only revenue came from t-shirt sales) and it was driven into bankruptcy in a mere three years. But Napster and its legal battles begat a new wave of file sharing, from Limewire to BitTorrent to whatever comes next, as well as social networking, from MySpace to Facebook to whatever comes next. Although we know this story, the documenting of it is an important one because the media distribution model is continuing to evolve and sometime down the line, historians are going to want to look at the beginning. And Downloaded provides an interesting, yet intimate, telling of that moment in time.
Downloaded had its world premiere at South by Southwest 2013.