Patents on MP3 Format Due to Expire

MP3 took off in the late 90s as the digital music format. It then proceeded to slaughter the CD, and launch the file sharing revolution as well. It’s a proud format that has roots stretching all the way back to the early 1980s, when the possibility of sending music over ISDN lines was first considered. Now the patents on it are beginning to expire and its licencing program has been terminated.

The MP3 standard was the property of Fraunhofer IIS, and the original licencing model was intended such that encoders would be expensive, and decoders relatively inexpensive. This would allow people to buy software to listen to MP3s cheaply, but the creation of MP3s would be expensive, and thus handled by studios and music labels. This all changed when a high-quality MP3 encoder was leaked to the public, and suddenly it became possible to readily convert your CDs at home into the MP3 format.

One hangover of this ownership of the MP3 standard was that when you installed certain FOSS software, such as Audacity or a Linux distro, you would find that you had to go and do some legwork to find an MP3 codec. That was because it wasn’t worth the legal trouble for the FOSS authors to arrange a workaround, and trading in proprietary software is the antithesis to everything they stand for.

However, now that more of the relevant patents are expiring, you can now expect MP3 support to be baked into more software. It may be more than a little late, with more advanced audio formats beginning to take over, but it’s great to know that Fedora, for one, is starting to include MP3 support with their releases.

If you’d like to read more about the history of the MP3, check out this great article from NPR. Fraunhofer have their own great history site, too. If all this talk of advanced audio formats has gotten you excited, check out this MP3 decoder written for the ESP8266.

[Thanks to Tim Trzepacz for the tip!]

51 thoughts on “Patents on MP3 Format Due to Expire

    1. lewin meant: they could either ship a floss implementation (and ‘infringe’ on software patents), or pay a license fee to include a proprietary implementation. instead, fedora chose option 3 not shipping anything at all. (ubuntu iirc has a license to ship some none-free mp3 decoder, which you can select on install)

  1. In the 90’s I built a stand alone mp3 player out of an old PC. I wanted something that was stand alone and had simple controls. Hacked together an old pc, wired up an lcd panel to the parallel port, ripped apart a keyboard to salvage the controller and painfully trying to figure out how to make connections for the keyboard to the keys I wanted on the multi layered plastic matrix. Getting MP3’s over a 28.8bps was a lengthy process, but I managed to collect what was considered a vast quantity of MP3′ at the time.

    1. I remember PJRC’s (the maker of the Teensy) standalone HDD-based MP3 player from that time. It was bulky (still smaller than a PC) and used a dedicated chip for decoding, but it was one of the first DIY MP3 players out there.
      https://www.pjrc.com/tech/mp3/
      When the first generation iPod came out I thought Apple just squeezed that thing into a nice case…

    1. flac is being supported on professional media players now (pioneer cdj’s etc) Professionals seem to be moving across as they need portable unencrypted files, and mp3’s level of compression is not such an issue with the size of memory now. Wav is getting used a bit as well for the same reasons, plus wav is very good for editing

    2. There are any formats that are free and open, like opus/vorbis(OGG) for instance, only AAC(M4A) is left to cause trouble now really – of the often used ones.
      MP3 is so ubiquitous already that I don’t think any effort is done to fight it by right holders for some time now.
      But with plenty of bandwidth and plenty of storage space there really is no great need for MP3 anymore.

      Incidentally I think the audio format restrictions of the mp4 container are really idiotic, but meh, there is always MKV, even when the ‘industry’ is trying to kill that, possibly because it’s a free container and one that is frequently used by pirated movies/shows.

        1. I agree. It may not be the best, newest or shiniest, but it is very well supported. And when you talk about vast amounts of memory, that is on computers. A car CD player from 10 years ago may not even support a USB sticks or be limited to 4GB or less, so you are stuck with 700mb or so CDROMS, so the compression if is still a big deal in some places. I would hate to have to go back to actual CD’s with 12 songs or so in my car.

    3. All the “advanced audio formats” that you need are patent-free. FLAC is great for music (because it’s lossless) and is actually supported by most players. For reduced size in video there is vorbis. However, size is much less a factor than it used to be due to broadband and capacious storage devices.

  2. This opens up mp3’s use embedded in software to reduce file sizes. It will be around for a long time still, as long as there is a place where size is more important than quality. I think that we will see it take a background roll shifting from music to beeps buzzes and clicks.

  3. Strange no mention of the origin of the original psycho-acoustic models, I guess they don’t like talking about that. Lots and lots of animal research with electrodes wired into living animals, mostly frogs from the academic papers I read on the subject 20+ years ago (I have no idea why frogs were chosen to be close to humans when it comes to hearing).

      1. Here you go shill who is probably working and paid to troll by the animal testing industry.
        Here is a document from 93 involving cats on the Interaural Phase Disparity:
        http://jn.physiology.org/content/jn/69/4/1245.full.pdf
        The part you will want to read is under methods surgical and recording procedures. The procedures on a cat are similar to the ones on frogs.

        I apologise profusely that I am unable to find an obscure paper that I read 20+ years ago, but if one example of audio animal testing in the time period mentioned does not allay your paranoia that everyone is lying, then nothing probably will.

    1. Seems like an incredible story, not because of the abuse of animals, but because I just don’t know how to get psycho-acoustic impressions of a human from a frog as you say, weird stuff.

      1. That is fine tuning a model after you have develop one, but you need to have a model before you can tune it. I’m talking back when the test equipment was an audio signal generator and various probes connected within a living animals brain to measure signal levels. Where you are physically mapping out the reduction in information and developing the initial model. It is odd that none of this has made it online, I read some papers which included the initial data analysis a few years prior to http existing as a protocol.

        1. If you have some of these in any kind of digital format (or can do a scan), could you please share some of them? I’d be interested to look at anything you might have.

        2. 1. Radical claims
          2. No sources or evidence

          > I read some papers which included the initial data analysis a few years prior to http existing as a protocol.

          Ah yes, the glorious era where everything anyone wrote down was unquestionable truth.

          1. What the hell is radical in saying that a mathematical model of hearing was derived from empirical collection of data gathered from nature. To develop a psycho-acoustic model required data be collected after preprocessing. Nothing radical just a fact, by your reasoning every piece of paper in all of human history must be on-line or else it is simply false.

          2. There are a lot of companies and universities that did and currently still do animal testing the direct results of which are generally never to be found on-line, the testing is always done behind closed doors. The only company I can think with an on-line presence in that area is Charles River Laboratories which breed research animals, I know of one facility that is nicknamed “the rat factory”, they still carry out LD50 tests. Just because you feel you know about an area and need to say “You are wrong, I don’t believe you, here is a funny picture – I’m well use to it I’ve been on the Internet long before http was a protocol.”

            I remember the start of http, I was on IRC and heard about this new thing called NCSA Mosaic, and I actually used it to connect to an address that listed all 23 websites on the worldwideweb. I do remember thinking that it would never catch on and that the future was still going to be smtp, nntp, IRC, ftp, archie and gopher.

          3. >What the hell is radical in saying that a mathematical model of hearing was derived from empirical collection of data gathered from nature

            The fact that it is completely undocumented and contradicts actually documented research methods.

            >Nothing radical just a fact

            An unsourced, unverifiable fact.
            “The MAN is covering up these HORRIBLE EXPERIMENTS! They used needles in animal brains to see how the shape of the human ear effects sound.Lack of evidence or documentation PROVES IT!”

            >by your reasoning every piece of paper in all of human history must be on-line or else it is simply false.

            No, by my reasoning pieces of paper have to actually exist before I’ll consider their authenticity. Your imaginary papers don’t exist, or at least haven’t existed since the 1980’s, so there’s no evidence of your claim.

            >There are a lot of companies and universities that did and currently still do animal testing the direct results of which are generally never to be found on-line

            Uhuh. There’s lot of aliens in Area 51 too. Oh, and Monsanto is turning the world gay, because the Illuminati. The fact that there’s no evidence is proof that it is true!

            >I remember the start of http, I was on IRC and heard about this new thing called NCSA Mosaic, and I actually used it to connect to an address that listed all 23 websites on the worldwideweb. I do remember thinking that it would never catch on and that the future was still going to be smtp, nntp, IRC, ftp, archie and gopher.

            Congrats. That still does nothing to verify your wacky conspiracy theory that the big bad MP3 cartel used brains of frogs and puppydog tails to get the same data a simple hearing test will produce. It also doesn’t explain how all these documents you describe somehow vanished the day HTTP came into being, and how these ongoing pointless experiments are completely undocumented. How are they funded? By who? For what purpose?

            I’m guessing the answer to all these questions is Jewish lizard people from Saturn.

        3. Answer me two questions (since you appear to have a issue with recalled information read and absorbed over a very long lifetime)
          1 what do you believe a psycho-acoustic model of hearing actually is ?
          2 how do you believe that is popped into existence ?

      2. It is worst case material for about any codec: single female voice, no background. Our ears are tuned to female voice, so the ear most easily notices any distortions on it. The piece is rythmic, any temporal errors pop out; about all modern codecs operate in blocks, so you will get error smearing within a block. And the voice is mixed to center but there is slight processing going, enough to force stereo coding: signal in center, errors at sides, no directional masking.

        And yes, it was much used; almost as much as castanets ( which REALLY get temporal errors out!). Castanets are just not that good a story.

      1. Nor trie, referring to use of animals. At that time, human hearing was well understood (in relation what the task needed) and sophisticated computer generated listening tests were the norm.

  4. Well, the patent for R134A is dead/dying so they came up with another, R1234xy to keep the money flowing in.
    So, the MP3 may live on in existing equipment, but the manufacturing syndicate will do its best to EOL it and
    Recording companies and audio equipment mfgrs will deprecate MP3 with licensing / royalties on the new IMPROVED! standards.

  5. I don’t understand the people predicting that the most universally supported digital audio format on earth losing its patent protection will make it LESS popular. It’s still less efficient than newer formats, but that’s still one fewer downside than it had before.

  6. If storage is cheap, why would a manufacturer end support for the ridiculously ubiquitous MP3 format when building a new player instead of just adding support for formats like FLAC or (dare I say) Vorbis? It’s not like we’re really dealing in physical manufacturing and retooling like the VHS-DVD-BR transitions.

  7. The article also explains why MP3 reputation is much worse than the algorithm really is. When you encode MP3, the assumption is that you know what you are doing and set the encoding parameters (that most people don’t even know exist) correctly.

  8. Most of the reporting I see on this issue is of the form “MP3 licenses are being terminated, so MP3 is dead”, with the fact that the licenses are being terminated due to the expiration of the patents barely getting mentioned.

    I can only assume that Fraunhofer’s press releases on the matter are deliberately confusing the issue, making it sound like “you no longer have to pay us for it” really means “it’s no good anymore”.

    I’m glad Hackaday got the story right on this.

  9. The g729 codec patents have also just lapsed, very useful for voice applications such as opensource telephony systems like asterisk. No more paying for additional licence fees per channel.

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