No, the MP3 Is Not Dead

A lot of articles, such as this one on Gizmodo, are saying that the MP3 is dead, or “officially dead,” that the company that created the format has killed it off. This is not true, not by a long shot.

Many of these articles quote a brief statement from Fraunhofer, saying that:

Although there are more efficient audio codecs with advanced features available today, mp3 is still very popular amongst consumers.

But for some reason most of these articles neglect to quote the first sentence of the Fraunhofer statement:

On April 23, 2017, Technicolor’s mp3 licensing program for certain mp3 related patents and software of Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS has been terminated.

The MP3 is far from dead; it’s just become free. So no one can earn money from licensing the format.

The patents on the MP3 format have always been problematic. Some of the patents related to this format expired in the US between 2007 and 2015, and they all expired in the European Union in 2012. But the format is finally unencumbered by patent and anyone can use it. In fact, since the patents are now in the public domain, anyone can use any of the techniques that were patented, which may not all be required for MP3 files, but which may apply to other types of audio or compression. (I don’t know enough about the patents to be more precise, but a patent for part of the MP3 standard could affect other types of data processing algorithms.)

Even the successor to the MP3 is problematic. Part of the MPEG-4 standard, AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), is the MP4 audio format. It’s naming has always led to confusion, and not made it clear that it is superior to MP3. I still read people saying that it’s an Apple proprietary format (people think one of the As in the abbreviation stands for Apple), because Apple chose it as the default format for the iTunes Store at launch. (Notably because MP4/AAC allows for DRM. There are ways to apply DRM to MP3 files, but they’re complicated.)

It’s a shame to see so many tech publications get this totally wrong. MP3 is not dead, and will certainly live on for many years. AAC is better, and has always been so, but change is hard for some people who think their LAME encoder makes for better rips. Even Fraunhofer admits this in their statement:

However, most state-of-the-art media services such as streaming or TV and radio broadcasting use modern ISO-MPEG codecs such as the AAC family or in the future MPEG-H. Those can deliver more features and a higher audio quality at much lower bitrates compared to mp3.