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MP3 is Free Cheap 28 August 2002 Edition
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The MP3 audio format has been one of the single most significant breakthroughs in the distribution of music in a digital format.

By storing music in MP3 format it has become practical to transfer recordings around the world using the Internet -- even when those involved only have dial-up connections.

For those who don't know -- a typical digitally encoded 3-4 minute recording takes up as much as 50MB when stored on a traditional CD. Convert the same recording to MP3 format and it can shrink to as little as 3-4MB.

Once freeware and open source developers discovered the wonder of MP3 they began producing large numbers of programs designed to encode, decode and play music in this wonderful new format.

As is the case with open source and freeware, most of these programs have been free to download from the Net, much to the joy of those who were looking for a way to efficiently store music on their computers.

Once business saw how rapidly this freeware was driving the acceptance of the MP3 format, all manner of hardware-based MP3 players began to appear. Gone is the tired old cassette-tape based walkman, and even the newer diskman -- now we have the solid state MP3 player.

Just about the only people not pleased with the arrival and widespread use of MP3 are the recording industry.

They sit in their little ivory towers surrounded by the trappings of success and regularly make very public mutterings about piracy, lost revenues, eroded sales, etc.

What they're really trying to say however, is "Oops, we've been caught with our pants down. We've been so slow and complacent about our monopolies that we didn't plan for this. What's more -- we really don't know what to do now, after all -- when you've got a monopoly you don't have to be very smart do you?"

Readers Say
(updated hourly)
  • MP3... - Jas
  • <font>... - Anona
  • Ogg Vorbis... - James
  • HTML & Lynx... - Dave
  • Have Your Say

    Doesn't this sound like a rosy picture?

    Pirated music flows like water, the programs to encode and play it are free for download on the Net, and the fat cats in the recording industry are squealing long and loud.

    Well there are a number of problems with this scenario -- apart from the obvious observation that pirating music is not legal, not right, and not very sensible.

    It seems that the folks who came up with (and patented) the MP3 format are expecting developers to pay a licensing fee for use of those patents.

    If Thompson decide to enforce their rights, many of those little freeware and open source developers could find themselves facing a huge licensing bill -- likely backdated.

    So what does this mean to the future of MP3 as a format?

    Probably not a lot.

    Most people already have all the MP3 software they need and, since it's probably freeware or open source, they're entitled to make copies and give those copies to others without penalty.

    These fees are probably only really going to affect those vendors who are making commercial products or hardware-based units -- and even then the relatively trivial licensing fees will simply be passed on to consumers.

    I think Thompson have boxed very clever on this one. By previously allowing the use of their patents without charge by those who have been writing free software, they've allowed the standard to gain a critical-mass of acceptance in the marketplace.

    Now they can step in and make some very nice profits from all the commercial vendors.

    I hope a lot of other developers take note of just how smart Thompson's strategy has been. It's a nice model for those who are also looking to move a product from conception to critical mass at minimal cost, while also ensuring that the critical mass produces a strong revenue stream down the track.

    And of course, whenever one mentions MP3 these days there's also the obligatory need to mention Ogg Vorbis. Ogg is another digital audio format similar to MP3 but without the patent restrictions. I'm linking to a version of their website cached by Google because they appear to be having some website problems today.

    So, the music, or at least its most popular method of digital storage, is still free!

    Have your say.

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