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.

5 thoughts on “No, the MP3 Is Not Dead

  1. True.. it’s free to license, but the question remains on whether anyone can now license it or if they will let them. Patent expired, but i don’t know if it’s now open source or public domain or what.

    I thought that hardware support for AAC was going to end up being mostly Apple only but i’m so happy that I was wrong. AAC has been great.

    • There’s nothing to license. Anyone can write the code to encode or decode MP3s. And anyone who already has that code in their apps or devices no longer has to pay licensing fees.

      Note that there has long been an open source encoder called LAME; I’m pretty sure there are also open source decoders.

    • When something is patented you have to work with the patent owner to use it at all. You either have to pay whatever they charge or, in the event they won’t license it, you don’t get to use or do it at all.

      So I could find an MP3 file and reverse engineer it and write a program for making one, from scratch, with no input or code from Fraunhofer whatsoever… and I’d still owe them money or have to get the rights to license it. It doesn’t matter that I wrote the code myself, the end result is still this file format that they invented and patented and so they get to decide the licensing terms. In that vein, I’m not sure what the LAME program has been doing in this respect, if they had to pay something or if they used some sort of loophole to make not-quite-an-mp3, or if they just don’t care since it’s a distributed anonymous project.

      I believe at one point their terms for players were a $1 royalty for players, or a $30,000 one-time blanket fee for whatever your product was. If you’re Apple and you’re selling the iPod, which is an MP3 player, then you could basically send $1 of the purchase price to Fraunhofer. If you’re Winamp and you’re making a software player that could be downloaded a billion times this is a problem, so you’d more likely pay the $30k fee (and so does Apple, probably, it’s cheaper than $1 per device on something you’re trying to sell billions of). And this would go into other things as well – it’s why the Unreal Engine uses OGG files, they’re not patent encumbered.

      Like Kirk said what’s happened is that the patents have expired and so Fraunhofer is closing up shop on their licensing program. What’s confusing everyone for some reason is that they did it with this press release that points out the superior file formats that have cropped up over the years. Perhaps part of the confusion is combined with the rise of online services, streaming services, and the marginalization of the iPod in Apple’s product line (including straight up discontinuing the iPod Classic), and some people have interpreted this that MP3 files don’t work anymore or something. It’s bizarre.

  2. I don’t understand what “proprietary” means in the case of AAC, which seems to have been developed through the co-operation of a whole bunch of companies. A perhaps incomplete Wikipedia article on AAC includes a link to ‘proprietary format’ where the definition given doesn’t seem to apply to products of such a joint development effort, but only to an individual or a single company. Who actually owns AAC?

    • Proprietary means that it was created by and is owned by one company. Many people thought Apple owned AAC. As you say, it was created by several companies. This sort of thing is common in tech, with companies contributing their patents to a “working group,” which then licenses the technology and distributes the money to the companies.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.