The Ten: Revisiting the Simplenet Crisis

The Ten: Revisiting the Simplenet Crisis

by March 24, 2009

the-tenA Community Almost Crushed by Haywire Hosts

The Sonic community, for all its trials and tribulations in its current state, was nearly wiped off the map ten years ago.

It wasn’t due to forum drama, egos, or legal threats, or hacking attacks.  It was the result of one service launching pre-emptive strikes against music sharing in a budding Internet age.

Don’t think Napster.  Think Simplenet.

Established in the mid 1990s, Simplenet in its infancy offered a basic premise that attracted so many customers: Unlimited space.  Unlimited possibility.  The firm was acquired by Broadcast.com and then Yahoo! in 1998.  In 2000, the hosting service touted 25,000 paying customers.

It may have been that Yahoo! acquisition and the sudden corporate meddling coming with it that resulted in a milestone not mentioned on the company’s site–the almost complete eradication of all major Sonic sites at the time.  After all, 1999 was in the height of the dot-com age, when anything Internet attracted massive money and investment.

KnuxComBut 1999 was also a golden age of sorts for the early era of Sonic fandom.  Plenty of Sonic sites set up shop on Simplenet, and that included Sharpknux’s Knuxcom, at that time not only a major Sonic hub, but also a repository for Sailormoon and SquareSoft (now Square Enix) information.  KnuxCom was established in 1996 and was one of the earliest Sonic fan sites to gain notoriety.  The layout may not have been clean, but the information was solid.  So too was the media within.

With Simplenet’s unlimited space capability came opportunity for webmasters to post just about anything, and that included music files.  In an era when broadband was only a pipe dream to many, RealMedia files were constantly the norm, but for those who could stomach the download time, MP3s were also available, and KnuxCom had them.

The music files were treasure troves and offered keen insight to the sounds of Sonic around the world.  Notable among community selection was the Japanese and European soundtrack to Sonic CD, not heard by most American Sonic fans until rat.org and eventually others posted them online.  Extended CDs, such as the rare Sonic Boom soundtrack Sega of America released to coincide with Sonic CD’s domestic launch, and the Sonic R Remix CD.  Classic sites such as Foxfire, Team Artail The Sonic Corner, and the Sonic Oasis offered similar fare.

But KnuxCom was the first to go.

The shutdown by Simplenet happened in early January of 1999 without warning.  Sharpknux only received notice after being thrust offline that his collection of Sonic MP3s were at the root of the problem.  He then addressed his visitors:

As some may have noticed over the weekend, KnuxCom was down, unable to be contacted by the public.  The reason is because Simplenet, the host of my web page, had suspended my account due to violation of their policies.  A very unfair reason why, since many of the Simplenet Sonic Sites violate the same policy I violated.  As many of you know, the Sonic Music Section had a vast amount of MP3’s featuring Sonic music from several games.  Copyrighted Sonic music. All the same copyrighted music several other Sonic Sites on Simplenet contain.  Apparently, Simplenet caught on to what I had done, and shut down the site until I removed the unwanted, copyrighted material.  So, from here on, as long as KnuxCom remains on Simplenet (which will be for awhile), there will be no more Sonic MP3 files. Seem fair that other sites can do this?  Absolutely not.  However, I don’t plan to snitch on any of these other websites.  I’m not like that.  I am annoyed, but I had planned on getting rid of them sooner or later, because I was aware of the fact that MP3’s are copyrighted, and they are illegal to post without proper permission.  This is why you will never see emulators or ROMs of Sonic Games (or any other games for that matter) on this website either.

KnuxCom, in its original state, would shut down three months later.

Those other Sonic sites would not be immune.  For the next few months, Simplenet would sniff out nearly every Sonic the Hedgehog fan site hosting Sonic music on their servers, and shut them down.  Many major sites were impacted.  Some returned, albeit a bit bruised from it all.  A few, such as well-known Sonic site The Sonic Foundation, voluntarily removed Sonic music, and submitted to sensations of fear.  A couple were shut down, even though original compositions were being hosted on the webspace.

The Sonic community was brought to its knees.

If someone wasn’t impacted themselves, many knew a fellow fan who was.  Panic struck, and some were unsure whether Internet Sonic fandom as a whole would survive.  Many were unsure where the directives were coming from–out of Simplenet, or straight from the top at Sega.  Community heads were discouraged from continuing, if not outright angry.

Here’s an early account of the damage from The Sonic Corner webmaster JD Harding, as relayed by this reporter on January 24, 1999, republished in a TSSZ News retrospective from February 21, 2000:

So far I’ve found that the following Sonic Simplenet sites, who had Sonic music on them, are missing:

Sonotropolis (sonotropolis.simplenet.com)
Which had original music by Razor, Arrow, and others.
Foxfire (foxfire.simplenet.com)
Which had all of the Sonic Arcade tracks, and others.
Planet Mobius (mobius.simplenet.com)
Which had an awesome collection of Sonic music.
Sonic Oasis (oasis.simplenet.com)
Which has the whole Sonic Boom soundtrack.
Knuxcom (knuxcom.simplenet.com)
Holding several Sonic mp3s.

Now, as I’ve looked around, Artail Productions (Team Artail) is the last and FINAL Sonic website that has Sonic music on it. Sonic R is gone, Sonic Arcade is gone, Sonic Boom is gone, and the Sonic R Remix music is gone too. If this continues and we lose Artail Productions (Team Artail), then we’re screwed as far as Sonic music goes. I for one am angry that so much Sonic music has disappeared from the net. Simplenet has to stop this, as Sega has not voiced that their music cannot be distributed on the net. When I hear that Sega themselves, including the composers both agree that the music CANNOT be distributed on the net, then they should take down websites. Otherwise they should keep their paranoid hands off of the Sonic sites, and stick to what they SHOULD be doing, which is upgrading the servers and maintaining their dignity.

Even those within Sega didn’t understand what was going on.

Well known Sonic music composer Richard Jacques was one of many to speak out, equally as confused as the fans.  Here’s what he said in a story originally published on Sonic HQ February 2, 1999:

With regards to the state of the internet, this has really been a big issue for me recently. It seems all of the ISP’s are cracking doen on EVERYTHING. I have had a lot of email from people exactly like you. The love games music, they love Sega, they want to have the music on their site. The official line from our legal department here at SoE, is that people are in breach of our copyright. There is a clause on the game packaging and in the game itself about not reproducing any part of the game in whole or part, and the soundtrack is quite a large part. OK, annoying but I agree Sega has to protect it’s intellectual property. BUT I think the point is that people can’t get this music. Sure, people who buy the game can listen to the music, but in the case of Dreamcast and other formats, you can’t just put the disc into a regular audio CD player and listen to the music. It’s a completely different format. So, Sega really need to provide the fans with dedicated soundtrack CD’s. Sure, you can get the odd import from Japan, but often they don’t have any remixes on, they’re expensive and they may not be popular in the US and Europe. The only thing I can say is for as many people as possible to email me, telling me about this problem. I am going to try and setup a record label to produce quality soundtrack CD’s, and to include remixes and bonus tracks, that Sega can sells. I am sure people would pay 10 bucks or something. Let me know what you think, and spread the word and get people to email me. It gives me a good case when I speak to my boss.

Up to this point, it was very common for importers to pay a high premium to nab legitimate Sonic music CDs from Japan. For almost all official soundtracks, it was the only way to obtain real copies.

The mayhem continued even through TSSZ’s opening day on April 2, 1999.  One of this site’s first stories involved the shutdown of World Sonic, another Simplenet site.  In the previous month, Team Artail eventually succumbed to Simplenet’s iron fist.  For a brief period, Sonic fans had nowhere to turn for tunes.

Eventually, some in Sonic fandom stepped up.  AJ Freda’s SegaSonic.net hosted Sonic MP3s for some time.  Suneet Shah’s The Sonic Zone also became a major source of music.  Other sites that were impacted found occasional workarounds.  Sega fan site SegaNet, eventually becoming Chupamedia, became another primary source of downloading.  Nearly all of these sites no longer exist.

A decade later, music downloading concerns are no longer at the forefront of Sonic fandom, and, perhaps, the same rings true for many music makers throughout the world.  It is no longer seen as taboo, but rather a means of exposure, and a means to drive legitimate, paid revenue to composers.  But in many ways,  in 1999 this community served as lab rats for the larger battle against music downloads that would follow in the years between the ignorance and acceptance.  Still, Napster, Limewire, and plenty of other download services flourished after Sonic fandom paid its dues.  To whom they were paid to remains still remains a bit unclear.  Music downloading is now commonplace–legal and otherwise.  And, ironically, there’s dispute on whether Sega may have lifted pieces for their official products.

This reporter was one of the original whistleblowers against this dark period in Sonic fandom.  Though relations between fans and Sega have strengthened in the decade since, as seen in the passage above from Richard Jacques, there’s nothing to stop Sega or its divisions from pulling the rug under the community’s feet.  The community expects and, perhaps, hopes that such an action will never be necessary.

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The Ten is a multi-part series examining the 10 events of the past decade that have shaped Sonic fandom and community affairs today.  It is part of a series meant to complement the 10th anniversary of TSSZ News.