A little over a week ago, I learned from Marco Arment that a number of news organizations erroneously reported that the MP3 format was dead. (NPR, d’oh!) The real news, however, was lot more complex and a lot less dramatic.
Technicolor and Fraunhofer, which owned and licensed the patents used to make MP3 work, had terminated the licensing program for software developers and hardware manufacturers to encode and playback MP3 files. Technicolor and Fraunhofer terminated the program because the patents they held and were used for MP3 had expired. Technicolor nor Fraunhofer no longer had a legal right to charge to license those patents. Thus, MP3 is now freely available for anyone to use: software developers and hardware manufacturers need not pay royalties to support MP3.
But that does not make for a dramatic story. Instead, either unintentionally or through sheer negligence, the story was that “MP3 was dead.” One writer even concluded his article with a eulogy of sorts, embedding the Susan Vega song that was the first to be encoded in MP3, in part to test the fidelity of the compression algorithm. Pour one out for MP3 while reciting “Tom’s Diner.”
MP3 is Free, Buy AAC
However, MP3 is not dead. The storyline that MP3 is dead seems to come from the former patent holders themselves. They likely pushed this storyline to gain support for a newer format that is still patent-protected, AAC. AAC is, by many measures, a better compression format. But as Marco Arment points out, MP3 is still overwhelming supported for most applications, including podcasts, because it’s a de-facto standard. And because it’s so widely supported and because a lot more people recognize “MP3” than those who know what “AAC” is, it’s unlikely that MP3 will disappear, especially now that it is free.
Because Technicolor and Fraunhofer could no longer profit from MP3, it meant they would have to find a new way to earn royalties on another audio codec. Declaring MP3 dead was a way to move users from the now-free MP3 codec to the patent-protected AAC.
The Techdirt podcast covered this subject in depth this week. They seemed unsympathetic to the former patent holders, and I can’t blame them. The patent holders could have announced something like “starting today, we’re suspending our MP3 licensing program and now anyone can use MP3 for free. This will give us a chance to focus on promoting new compression technologies, such as AAC, to become the newer and better successor to MP3.”
MP3 is dead, but only to Fraunhofer because they can’t make money from it.
OTA Isn’t Dead, Either
Declaring MP3 dead reminded me of what happened almost a decade ago with the digital broadcast TV transition.
In 2009, the FCC required almost all broadcast TV stations to turn off their analog over-the-air (OTA) signals. The most immediate effect was that, for people with older, analog-only TV receivers, they would have to get a digital-to-analog TV converter box or subscribe to a cable or satellite TV to continue to watch TV. Those with newer digital TV receivers would have to take no significant action to continue watching TV.
However, the storyline that came from this was that over-the-air broadcast TV was dead. As I noted in 2013, this was simply not true: rabbit ears still work. In fact, the DTV transition did lead to more cable and satellite subscribers. As a form of poetic justice, those gains have been wiped out by cord-cutting.
A profit motive seemed to drive the story that there would be no more “rabbit ears.” In the case of the the digital TV transition in 2009, I wrote that “cable and satellite companies took this as an opportunity to sign up new customers thinking that those that received over-the-air television would be doomed. Instead, they were just duped.”
Neither OTA nor MP3 is dead. In fact, both are very much alive and, best of all, they are both free!