A decade ago, four young men changed the way the world works. They did this not with laws or guns or money but with software: they had radical, disruptive ideas, which they turned into code, which they released on the Internet for free. These four men, not one of whom finished college, laid the foundations for much of the digital-media environment we currently inhabit. Then, for all intents and purposes, they vanished.
In 1999 a Northeastern University freshman named Shawn Fanning wrote Napster, thereby pioneering peer-to-peer file sharing and a new paradigm for consuming media without the intermediary of a big studio or retailer. TIME put him on its cover, as did Fortune. He was 19 years old.
That same year, a Norwegian teenager named Jon Lech Johansen, working with two other programmers whose identities are still unknown, wrote a program that could decrypt commercial DVDs, and he became internationally infamous as “DVD Jon.” He was 15.
In 1997, Justin Frankel, an 18-year-old hacker in Sedona, Ariz., wrote a free MP3 player called WinAmp, which became a fixture on Windows machines and helped mainstream the digital-music revolution. During its first 18 months in release, 15 million people downloaded it. Three years later, Frankel wrote Gnutella, a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol so decentralized that, unlike Napster, it could not be shut down. Millions of people still use it.
In 2001, Bram Cohen, then 26, wrote a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol called BitTorrent that featured an elegant new architecture optimized for handling large files. BitTorrent has become the standard for distributing big chunks of data over the Internet.
In the first half of the 2000s, TIME interviewed each of these programmers. At the time, it looked as if they were poised to dismantle the entire media-entertainment complex and bring about a digital apocalypse that would make it impossible to charge money for movies, music or TV ever again. Artists would no longer get paid for their work, and the huge entertainment conglomerates, Time Warner among them, would be bombed flat. The pirates were coming for corporate America.
“After all,” we wrote in 2003, “you can’t have an information economy in which all information is free.” And if the apocalypse was coming, Fanning, Johansen, Frankel and Cohen were the four horsemen.
So that didn’t happen. Change has come to the entertainment industry, but it’s been a lot more complicated and gradual than we expected. And the story of what did happen, and what the pirate kings have done since then, is highly instructive if you want to understand what’s going on in the digital world right now. Fanning, Johansen, Frankel and Cohen are all running small, legal Silicon Valley software firms. They’ve gotten out of the pirate business — if they were ever really in it at all.