Developers Of The MP3 Have Officially Killed It

MP3, the digital audio coding format, changed the way we listen to music and drove the adoption of countless new devices over the last couple of decades. And now, it's dead. The developer of the format announced this week that it has officially terminated its licensing program.

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The actual ownership history of the various patent rights involved in MP3 technology is complicated and messy. But the Fraunhofer Institute has claimed the right to licence certain MP3 patents to software developers who want to "distribute and/or sell decoders and/or encoders" for it. The announcement that the company will end its licensing program was accompanied by a statement that reads in part:

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

The decision is largely symbolic, but it's kind of like when all manufacturers start installing CD-ROMs instead of floppy drives. There will be some stragglers who still support the MP3 but newer formats will be the standard. AAC -- or "Advanced Audio Coding," -- was developed in part by the Fraunhofer Institute and is considered the standard today.

The MP3 is dead but its effect on the digital landscape is profound. It enabled easier downloading of audio files during the broadband days of the internet and drove technical newcomers to join the cyber age. The iPod and iTunes both fuelled a new era for Apple and led to the iPhone and all of its imitators that dominate the way we communicate today.

Unlike vinyl or the cassette, it seems unlikely that MP3 will ever have a nostalgic resurgence. The audio quality is trash by modern standards and some research has even suggested that its compression reinforces perceived negative emotional characteristics in musical instruments to the detriment of positive emotional characteristics.

In honour of the MP3, let's all listen to the song ("Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega) that Karlheinz Brandenburg used as a reference track while he was developing it. Below that, you'll find an embed of all the audio that's lost on the track when it's run through MP3 compression.

[Fraunhofer Institute via NPR]



    That sounds like what's *changed* in the mp3 version to me, not necessarily lost.

    Does this mean that down the track I will have to re-rip my CDs?

    A good chunk of my library (before I got my first iPod and started using AAC) is in MP3 so it will be a major frustration if I have to re-rip or transcode my music again!

      MP3 has always been messy in terms of patent and licensing claims. The only reason Fraunhofer is retiring their licensing program now is because the last remaining patent involved expired in April. Almost all the other patents expired years ago.

      The problem with MP3 and AAC is they're non-free formats that require manufacturers to pay licence fees. If your players support it, you're better off converting to Vorbis, Opus or FLAC formats, all of which are open source and free.

        A sibling of mine worked on sound compression back in the 90's, mostly around ingame chat (so, VOIP in other words) and I remember them commenting about licensing issues with some German group. I assume it was these guys. Wasnt a blocker, just red tape slowing the research down at the time.

        For me, seeing the embed of the lost audio is the more interesting part. All that stuff (including the parts where there is nothing) is what cuts a 40 meg wav file down to a 4 meg mp3.

        Take it a step (or 3) further, you cut the sound needs of real time chat down to kb/s, and what used to be able to be transmitted as voip via dialup, while competing with game data needing to share that line.

    The decision is largely symbolic

    So, it's a symbolic killing rather than a real killing? In other words, my device of choice that plays MP3's won't suddenly stop playing them...
    In fact, my 1000's of MP3's are likely to outlive me and will still be able to be played for quite some time...

    MP3 is now unencumbered by patents, which can only be a good thing

      Yeah, although it has been surpassed by better formats in the meantime. You don't have to go converting everything but it's probably a good idea.

        More interested in the fact that the likes of Fedora and Debian can now ship MP3 decoders, making an easier and friendlier system. One less thing you need a repo for

          Don't Vorbis and Opus have packages in the default repo already? Certainly easier if you want to use MP3 but I wonder how many Linux users moved on to other formats already, especially given the FOSS culture.

            It's a godsend if you're jumping between devices and still have legacy gear though. My old blu-ray player didn't support OGG for example but it did support MP3. I still like having an "acceptible" lowest common denominator that I can chuck on any of my devices and know it's going to work.

              Yeah, that's true. I've had a bit of aversion to MP3 since finding out about its licensing, I switched all my stuff to other formats (Vorbis mostly) ages ago and never looked back. But it does require having compatible hardware, so I guess you're stuck with it if your media player only does MP3.

                The way I see it, if my device supports MP3 then licensing is a non-issue since it's already been obtained and paid for. So I've never been terribly concerned about licensing. Will be interesting to see what happens in future and which format(s) get support behind them.

                  It's more a principle thing for me, I understand the devices I have already paid their fees and it doesn't affect that side of it directly, but I try to make a habit of using free codecs and file formats if it can at all be helped.

    "It enabled easier downloading of audio files during the broadband days of the internet" did I miss something? Isn't like 80% of connected services still broadband?

    Last edited 15/05/17 10:16 am

      Would have made more sense to say "during the dial-up days of the internet".

    AAC has much better quality/bitrate/size characteristics anyway. ogg vorbis is a worthy free equivalent, but much less hardware support for it (obviously less of an issue with smartphones with software players).

      I wouldn't necessarily say it's universally "much" better - depends on the content as well as the target bitrate. Over about 192 kbps the difference is less pronounced.

    MP3 just whipped the llama's ass.

      R.I.P. Winamp. I wanted a music player on Android that had enqueue function within a playlist (what made Winamp awesome, along with visualisations and skins).

        Winamp was my introduction to MP3 back in the late 90's. So basic to use, but had plenty of things to tinker with if you really wanted. Loved the huge variety of skins too and the crazy visualizations.

          Yeah that weird green head skin was ummm... an acquired taste.

    This article is pretty misleading.

    MP3 isn't dead - it's just that the patents have expired and the Fraunhofer institute is no longer licensing the technology.

    In essence, MP3 has essentially become free to use, which seems the opposite of being dead to me. It's still one of the most ubiquitous digital music formats around, although has possibly been surpassed by AAC.

    Frauenhofer is no longer licensing mp3 because mp3 is free now. not dead, thats ridiculous. Also its not trash, try blind test an see if you can tell a difference at all. usuall ypeople can not tell the difference even to 8bit, try this:

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