MP3: nothing to do with piracy. Really.

Mylatest blog entry began with this paragraph:

Messing with MP3 files is, for some people, a synonym for illegal use of copyrighted music. Well, actually it's not.

The reason I wrote that incipit remained unclear to many, that didn't seeany link between this first phrase and the rest of the article. I therefore decided towrite a few blog entries on the subject. This time I'll talk about theMP3 format in itself.

MP3 is a popular lossy audio compression format. In some ways, MP3 is for audiofiles what JPEG is for still images. JPEG, as you may know, is a lossyimage compression format; it's effectiveness builds on the fact that JPEGremoves information that the human eye cares less for. Similarly, MP3s removeinformation that are less audible to human hears.

A JPEG compressed image is different from the original one, and differencesare quickly spotted by a watchful eye; similarly, if you listen carefullyto an MP3 file you can feel that there are sounds somewhat degraded.

MP3 as a format owes its success to a couple of factors. The first is a very goodcompression/quality ratio; the second is our old beloved Napster, whichin 2000 made itvery easy to search for and exchange MP3 audio files;it also made peer-to-peer programs so popular that someone thought wewere at the beginning of a new frontier in internet services, despite the fact thatthe P2P paradigm in itself was quite old instead (think about theold talk UNIX utility to get an idea).

But success came at a cost: a lot of the files shared with Napster wereillegally shared copyrighted music. So, for some, MP3 became synonymous with "illegal audio files". My latest blog entry came from here: having anMP3 file doesn't mean that you have something illegal in your hands.

I could stop here telling the story of MP3, but since this isFree Software Magazine there something more that's worth saying.To cut a long story short, MP3 is not a free format, despite its widespreaduse and its being a de facto standard.Thomson holds the patents on theformat and it's actively trying to enforce those patents all over theworld.

But wait, there is more. TheFraunhofer Institutewas involved in the creation of the format since the beginning, andcreated the first MP3 encoder. Well, it holds a license that allows itto require a licensing fee for all programs that use the MP3 format(both encoders and decoders); Thomson manages all the licensingprocedures on their behalf. For more information you can have a lookat Fraunhofer'sFAQ onMP3 and at web site.

All these licensing and patent issues made the free software communitydevelop a new audio file format that's now known asOgg Vorbis. Let's cut a longstory short again, and say that Ogg is sort of a multimedia containerfile format, that is a specification for files that may contain audio and/orvideo tracks. Vorbis, in turn, it's an audio encodingformat. As you may now have guessed, Ogg Vorbis files are Vorbis audiostreams contained in Ogg containers. Ogg Vorbis combines both the advantagesof MP3 (a high compression ratio and high quality for audio files) andbeing a patent-free, open file format, something that FSM readers mayappreciate. It hasn't the same popularity of MP3, nevertheless it's supportedby many media players, both free (like XMMS) and non free (like WinAMP).It's also supported by a number ofportable audioplayers.

And that's all for this post. Next time I'll talk about legal issuesconnected to the use of MP3 files, and in particular about thelegal issues related tomyprevious post. I'll be helped in this effort byMassimo Farina, an Italianlawyer and a dear friend of mine, who's specializing in legal issuesrelated to new technologies. Until then, enjoy FSM!


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