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News Analysis

Article from Issue 201/2017



MP3 Is Dead, Long Live MP3

Back in May, there was an unexpected surge in press coverage about the MP3 audio file format. What was most unexpected was it all declared that the venerable file format is somehow "dead." Why did that happen, and what lessons can we learn?

What actually happened was that the last of the patents on the MP3 file format and encoding process have finally expired. Based on earlier work, it was developed by the Moving Pictures Expert Group (MPEG) built on the doctoral work of an engineer at Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. Many companies held patents on the standard, and it was not until April that the last of them expired. There's no easy way to ascertain whether a patent has expired even after the date one might expect, so the wave of news arose from announcements by Fraunhofer Institute.

Framing this as an "ending" fits the narrative of corporate patent holders well, but it does not really reflect the likely consequences. Naturally the patent holding companies would rather everyone "upgrade" to the newer AAC format, which is still encumbered under a mountain of patents necessitating licensing. But for open source software, the end of patent monopolies signals the beginning of new freedoms.

MP3 has been obstructed by patents throughout its life, limiting adoption in contexts where software is community developed. Open source projects avoid patented technologies. They create challenges for both developers and users, such as

  • A need to evaluate risks
  • A need to identify whether any permissions are needed and, if so, to seek permission to use the format, which may lead to
  • A need to obtain a license, which itself may result in
  • A need to establish a business relationship – for example, to count unit shipments or user numbers

Permission-seeking steps always obstruct open source as every user of the code has to take them. That's directly opposite to the nature of open source, which is to grant all necessary permission in advance. Noncommercial terms are of no help. Open source explicitly permits commercial use of code.

Although the patents on decoding MP3 expired a while ago, it's not enough for MP3s to be free to own, free to listen to, or even free to create for personal use. As soon as there is any permission-seeking stage in the development chain, the format is compromised. Patents on the encoding process are as much as an obstacle to adoption as those in the replay process. Those are the patents that have now expired on MP3.

Now that MP3 files may be both created and played without the need to worry about patent holders, developers worldwide are finally free to innovate without needing to ask for permission. The widespread availability of both storage and bandwidth means the appeal of newer, more efficient successor formats like AAC is unlikely to be compelling. They are imperceptibly better for the average user, and they come with a need to worry about patent-holders. I think it's likely we will see MP3 encoding and decoding capabilities being more widely used than before.

Far from being dead, the MP3 format is only now finally free to live to the full. The patents are dead – long live MP3!

The Author

Simon Phipps is a board member of the Open Source Initiative, the Open Rights Group, and The Document Foundation (makers of LibreOffice).

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