In fact, millions are now getting free music off the Internet from Fanning's creation, the Web site Napster. And, as 60 Minutes II Corresepondent Charlie Rose reports, the big recording studios have dispatched an army of lawyers to shut Napster down.
Napster is enabling millions of people to get free music with just a few keystrokes at their computers. The idea is deceptively simple; it's called file sharing. Computer users store their music collections in their computers. When they link up with Napster, it then acts as a central hub that brings everyone together, allowing people to swap music, computer to computer, without paying a dime.
Fanning, the young man who made it happen, says his creation came from an interest in computers more than his interest in music. "I love music. But, you know, the technology was probably the most powerful piece for me," he says. "Creating something...that lots of people end up using, I mean, that...was definitely the major piece that excited me."
Because of Fanning, the world has changed for the Goliaths of the record industry, Sony, Universal and others. The record companies say they will lose billions in sales because fans are getting their music for free and they want Fanning stopped. Last week, they were asking a federal appeals court to do just that.
Musicians like Lars Ulrich of the rock band Metallica are suing, too. What is at stake is nothing less than the future of his business, Ulrich says. "I did not - was not asked if I wanted to be part of Napster. I was not asked if Napster could throw our music into their system. That choice was taken away from me," he protests.
Ulrich admits he doesn't care if a few kids are downloading his songs. He is worried about the future. "This is not about now. No. This is about five years from now. This is about 10 years from now," he says. "So, if we are going to sell our music on the Internet, in whatever way we so choose, we cannot do that if the guy next door is giving it away for free."
The guy next door is an unlikely revolutionary. Shawn Fanning works in a nondescript building along a busy highway in Redwood City, Calif. Napster was his first attempt at creating software. It was also a groundbreaking program for file sharing.
One killer idea has made Fanning a celebrity, landing him on magazine covers and on the MTV Video Music Awards. It's a long way from the life he knew in Brockton, Mass.
He was a terrific high school athlete and then his uncle gave him his first computer. "And so what happened was, I started compromising my school work; I quit all the sports I was playing and focused all of my energy on lerning about software development," says Fanning.
He entered Boston's Northeastern University just two years ago, in the fall of 1998. After hearing his roommate complain about how difficult it was to find free music on the Internet, Fanning decided to find a way to change that. "I just stopped going to school," says Fanning. "I left my dorm room. I didn't tell any of my friends. I just stopped going."
"I was, you know, spending two or three days in a row sitting on a machine writing code," he says. "You know, I'd pass out on the desk or on the floor."
His hard work paid off. Napster has grown into a phenomenon. The company employs about 50 people - most barely out of their teens. Fanning himself draws a modest salary and owns a small percentage of Napster. The rest belongs to investors who have poured millions of dollars into the company, even though it has yet to make any money.
Despite the rapid growth in interest in his free file-sharing program, Fanning says, he never thought he would draw the ire of the music industry. "I just felt like I was combining a bunch of technologies to sort of create this cool idea."
Some musicians, like members of the band Limp Bizkit, support Napster. They see it as a way of loosening the grip of the big record companies, allowing unknown musicians to have their songs heard.
But Ulrich has made defeating Napster a personal crusade. "This is not just about music," he says. "We are probably right now two to three months away from having a situation where you can download a 90-minute motion picture in probably - in real time."
Last spring, Ulrich showed up at Napster's office with the names of 300,000 users that he said had illegally downloaded Metallica songs. While Napster kicked the users off, many were back on in a matter of hours using different names.
The big battle is taking place in federal court, where the record industry hopes to shut down Napster once and for all. Hilary Rosen, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, speaks for the record companies. "Napster is trying to build a multibillion dollar business on the backs of creative investment. Let's not pretend that there's only one side in this element that's looking for money," says Rosen.
With the stakes so high, Fanning and Napster have hired a big gun of their own: David Boies, the lawyer who led the government's anti-trust case against Microsoft. "What the law says is that individual consumers have a right to share," says Boies.
What Napster users do, says Boies, is no different than using a photocopier or a VCR. The way he sees it, the record industry should be embracing Napster and the people it serves.
"This is a case that the record industry can't win," says Boies. "If they shut down Napster today in the United States, it pops up in a different country totally outside their control."
Fannin wants to make peace with the recording industry. But change may be inevitable. Fanning's revolution has many foot soldiers - other kids who are out to change the world, one keystroke at a time.