By Jason Snell
May 15, 2017 2:22 PM PT
Long Live the MP3
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
Here’s the short version of this story: The MP3 audio format isn’t dead, but is about to experience a renaissance.
Here’s the slightly longer version: One of the companies who held patents covering some uses of the MP3 format has terminated its licensing program because its patents have run out. What this means is not that the MP3 format is about to evaporate, but rather, that lots of audio software that previously avoided encoding files into MP3 will now be free to support it without paying a tithe to Fraunhofer.
This is great news for everyone. I’ve spoken to several developers of audio and MP3-related software who have been watching the clock run out on MP3 patents so that they could release MP3 features into the world—both in brand-new apps as well as existing ones—without buying into Fraunhofer’s expensive licensing regime.
Almost every podcast you listen to is encoded as an MP3. A lot of the music you listen to may be, too. MP3 is an old format, yes, and there are newer formats that improve on it—Fraunhofer recommends AAC, which has been powering iTunes since the start. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fraunhofer makes money from AAC patents that it no longer makes from MP3 patents.
Did Fraunhofer announce the death of MP3 in the hopes of convincing a credulous tech press to poison the format and push people to a newer format that is still a money-maker for them? I guess you could brush up on your German and ask them, but it seems pretty obvious to me.
What’s disappointing is the number of news outlets, from Gizmodo and Engadget to NPR and CNBC, that reported Fraunhofer’s declaration uncritically. Full credit to outlets like Motherboard and CNet and TMO for getting the story right.
I’m not going to relitigate1 the arguments against software patents here. Even if you believe that software should be patented, there is a point at which the patent regime needs to fall away so that everyone can make use of the technology unencumbered. This is a time for celebration for anyone who is not Fraunhofer: The MP3 is now free. Make your new MP3 encoders with abandon. Create more MP3 podcast tagging and chapter tools. Add MP3 export to all of those iOS apps that desperately need it.
And to those who suggest that the MP3 will die because it’s an older and inferior format, I say only this: One of the most popular file formats on the Internet is ancient and unencumbered by patents. Or have you not looked at a GIF lately? Long live the MP3.
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