MP3 Free At Last
Written by Mike James   
Tuesday, 09 May 2017

Red Hat has announced that Fedora will include official MP3 decoding and encoding. The reason is that MP3 is now patent free - as far as anyone can tell.



MP3 revolutionized, or killed according to some, the music business, but using it in a project has long been a legal minefield. Many smaller projects simply ignored any patent problems and pressed on. If they had the good fortune to be successful then the patent sharks would notice and either close them down or take a share of the fortune. Open source projects like Fedora had really no choice but to not ship MP3 decoders or encoders:

The MP3 patents are protected by United States law and international treaties, and the Fedora Project will honor the applicable laws and treaties.

The situation was a bit of mess with patents expiring in some countries but not in others. In the EU all relevant patents expired by 2012. In the US it took till April 2017 for the same patents to expire, leaving MP3 effectively free to use.

A further problem was that there are so many patents that relate to MP3 that it was, and still is, difficult to be sure that there wouldn't be someone waiting to claim infringement. The green light, as far as RedHat is concerned, is the statement that Fraunhofer is no longer looking to collect licence fees.

The Fraunhofer announcement reads:

On April 23, 2017, Technicolor's mp3 licensing program for certain mp3 related patents and software of Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS has been terminated.

It is good of Fraunhofer, the major contributor to mp3, to make the situation clear; many other institutions would have continued to extract fees based on the clients fears that they might be infringing some other Intellectual Property rights. Fraunhofer has done the right thing, but it would have been nice if it had mentioned the expiry of the patents rather than making it sound like a charitable gesture.  For the record Wikipedia estimates that these fees brought in 100 million euros for Fraunhofer which is at least a worthwhile concern doing good fundamental research.

The Franhofer statement seems to have been enough for RedHat's legal department to signoff on including mp3 decoding and encoding in the OS and if it's good enough for RedHat it is probably good enough for the rest of us - so mp3 can be considered free at last. 

What are we going to do with it?

For most of us it isn't an important issue. You can get open source encoders,  for example Lame, and finding a decoder has never really been a problem. Including mp3 in an open source project has always been relatively safe but in a commercial product less so unless you were prepared for the licence fee.


You could, however, argue that the age of mp3 is over with streaming audio taking its place. But tell that to any real music enthusiast with a library of ripped CDs, and even LPs, on NAS storage and they probably won't believe you. Of course, there is the small matter of quality. Any audiophile will tell you that MP3 is terrible - just listen to what audience applause sounds like - and the only way to store music digitally is a lossless format like FLAC. And a real hardline audiophile will tell you that digital is no good at all and only the warm feeling of analog, preferably with vacuum tubes in the loop, provides the only pure sound. 


More Information


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Principles Of MP3 


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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 May 2017 )