What was Limewire? Here’s its fascinating story

Bernardo Montes de Oca
September 1, 2021

What was Limewire? This software was part of the P2P revolution in the early 2000s, but its story touches on many topics, including legal issues and controversies.

Imagine facing a lawsuit for $75 trillion. You read that right: $75 trillion. As a reference, the US's GDP in 2019 was $21.433 trillion. So clearly, someone pissed off the wrong crowd. And that someone was Limewire.

Limewire was one of the most popular P2P clients in the 2000's. It allowed millions to download music, images, software, and videos, as well. But its legacy is also tainted with darkness. The network no longer operates and, still, we can take out valuable lessons from it. So, in this article, we'll dive into the rise and fall of Limewire.

How Limewire started

Mark Gorton is a creative man. In seventh grade, for example, he created a scale model of his school. Why? He wanted to. And, music wasn't in his sights. His background instead was a mix of engineering, trading, and investment.

His relationship with file transfers came as a business opportunity. But, first, let's quickly talk about the Peer-to-Peer system or P2P.

A P2P system connects two computers directly. In the case of file transfers, users can share files with others (your peers).

But, for Gorton, it was more than file transfers. He envisioned an entire marketplace, thanks to how P2P worked. So, he founded Lime Group to build a corporate server using Gnutella. No, not that Nutella.

Gnutella is a protocol with a straightforward idea. A series of queries and responses allows for individual computers to talk to each other. So, there's no need for central servers. So, it was the first extensive decentralized P2P network.

But there was an added benefit—Gnutella permitted others to build platforms over itself, which was Lime Group's idea. And so, they created LimeWire. Let's be clear: in the late '90s and 2000s, many people used Gnutella as a base. But Limewire took it one step further.

How Limewire became a success

First of all, Limewire was easy to use: search, choose and click. Presto! But, even though it would become the most used P2P software, its start wasn't easy.

After Limewire launched in 2000, 90% of the downloads failed because of fake user servers. To improve this, engineers introduced verification protocols, making downloads easier and more reliable.

What was Limewire doing for content control? Well, very little. And this would bite back. So, things were going well but at a snail's pace until the Napster lawsuit. If you want to know more about this other P2P network, check out our post on it.

The media loved covering Napster. So, as the news blasted viewers with images of Napster, more than one became curious about downloading and P2P systems.

Plus, the world was changing. Even the New York Times agreed that Napster would only add fuel to the fire. People wanted to consume music more freely, even if it meant being illegal.

Then, of course, there's that other ingredient: .mp3. This format was revolutionizing the music industry, with high quality and small file sizes. Limewire had it all for a triumphant rise to the top.

The recipe was easy: after you clicked and the bar hit 100%, you had whatever you had requested. Well, not quite.

Limewire's good, bad and ugly

People loved Limewire. By 2005, there were 1.7 million users downloading music and videos and software too.

The company had even created a Pro version, which promised faster downloads and more connections, for a one-time payment of $21.95.

The program was fast, easy to use, and with tons of stuff to download. As a result, Limewire became an escape for teenagers, who spent hours downloading endless gigabytes of content.

But, in a sense, one of Limewire's greatest features became its biggest flaw. Remember how we spoke about control? Well, Limewire had no capacity for fingerprinting and filtering content. For most users, this wasn't a significant problem, per se.

You downloaded an album thinking it was from this band and, it turned out it wasn't. But, hey, at least you got to know new bands. But, the problem is much more severe than just mislabeled music.

Illegal content spreads like disease

There was almost no filtering and control, and users could access millions of random servers worldwide. So, hackers took full advantage. They littered the Limewire ecosystem with viruses, warez, and bugs. So, there was no guarantee the next download wouldn't kill your computer.

Limewire's system was so loose that you could download Limewire Pro within Limewire. For free! The only problem was it could end up being a virus.

And, still, this wasn't the worst thing about Limewire. Unfortunately, it became littered with child pornography. So, you could be downloading what you think is your favorite movie but instead end up in possession of illegal material.

Many people ended up in jail. And, while some claimed they were ignorant, many local and national laws insisted that computer ignorance was no excuse.

But, Limewire itself floated in a legal cloud of uncertainty. There wasn't a clear answer: what was Limewire responsible for? Moreover, the nature of the P2P system meant the company had little control. Ironically, it wasn't child pornography that caused Limewire's demise.

Limewire tries to make it legit.

It's heartbreaking that child pornography carried on in Limewire until it shut down. Authorities made considerable efforts to stop this, but they could only track individuals instead of an entire P2P system.

But, first, we must go back to 2006. That year, the Record Industry Association of America, or RIAA, sued Limewire. If this name sounds familiar, it's because they also sued Napster. Check out our video on it.

The RIAA claimed that Limewire made illegally downloading music easier for millions of users. They wanted to stop all those people from having access to their creative material.

This story is very similar to other cases such as Napster. But, here's where it gets interesting. In 2007, Mark Gorton reached out to the record companies to sell their songs through Limewire by blocking and charging for them.

But the plan backfired. First, the Judge, Kemba Wood, ruled that he was evidencing that Limewire was illegal by blocking and charging for the songs. Not a brilliant move.

Also, the RIAA didn't want anything to do with a program that flooded computers with viruses and warez. So, they fired back.

The tune that marked Limewire's end

The music industry wanted to make illegal downloads harder to come by. Their strategy was simple, attack the source, and the evidence was there. For example, Limewire increased its revenue from $6 million in 2004 to $20 million in 2006, profiting while the RIAA and its companies lost money.

And, let's remember: the RIAA isn't small. So, once the RIAA sued you, you either settled or settled and tried to go legit. Limewire tried the second, to no avail. And, from a legal standpoint, the RIAA was right. So, Judge Wood agreed: the downloads were illegal.

But then, the RIAA went crazy. They claimed that every copyright violation had cost them $150,000 and that Limewire had distributed 11,000 songs illegally. Add all that up, and you get $75 trillion.

As you can imagine, Judge Wood eloquently called it "absurd." And we agree: it's just an impossible amount.

So, both sides had to compromise. In 2010, the judge ruled that Limewire had to cease activities and pay for damages.

But, not $75 trillion. In the end, Limewire settled with the record industry for $100 million, then shut down operations. But it left its mark. Just weeks after the lawsuit, a group of hackers created a fork version of Limewire called Limewire pirate edition.

And, after the lawsuit ended, the hacker group Anonymous threatened to attack the RIAA's website.

That's how much people cared about free music. The impact that Limewire and other platforms had on how we consume content remains to this day. It helped shape the future of entire industries. But it was far too flawed.

People will continue to find creative ways to download stuff. And, indeed, if they want to know about the origins, they'll look back at history, and they'll see Limewire.

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable. From start-ups to nature, from literature to aviation. Hearing impaired, so let’s talk loud and clear.
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