The MP3 Is About As 'Dead' As Pepe The Frog

from the reports-have-been-greatly-idiotic dept

Last week, there were two widely reported “deaths” on the internet: Pepe The Frog and the MP3 audio codec. Most people seemed to understand what was meant by the former headline — that you cannot in fact kill a meme, no matter how distasteful its use, and the death of Pepe in an official cartoon strip was a symbolic disavowal of the character by its creator. But on the MP3 issue people seem a bit more confused.

Here’s what happened: in late April (not sure why there was such a big delay in the explosion of blog posts) Fraunhofer IIS, the research company that holds the patents on MP3 encoders and decoders, announced that it had terminated the licensing program for those patents, for the stated reason that the format has been surpassed by alternatives like AAC (which is also patented and licensed by Fraunhofer). For some reason, a whole lot of media outlets have accepted this at face value and reported that the format is now officially on its way out. “The MP3 is Dead” headlines abound, with only a small few bothering to add qualifiers like “according to its creators” or the classic rejoinder “long live the MP3”:

Most of the articles buried some attempt to call the move “symbolic” or clarify that the files would still exist towards the end of their coverage, after much eulogizing, but almost none took the time to understand anything about the patent situation, or expose Fraunhofer’s huge lie of omission in its announcement.

Because here’s what really happened: the last of the patents related to the MP3 format expired (or will very soon — more on that later), so Fraunhofer has nothing left to license. The termination of the licensing program was not a choice, nor was it suddenly motivated by the ascendence of another format that has itself been around for 20 years. Most importantly, despite what many people have reported, this does not mean the death of the MP3. Of course, Fraunhofer’s statement didn’t contradict any of these things, it just omitted them all and left people with the implication that this move ensured the decline and eventual death of the format — when in fact it likely means the exact opposite.

Prior to this, developers wishing to include MP3 functionality in their software needed a license to do so. If you use Linux, or open source audio tools like the excellent Audacity, you already know this: open-source software doesn’t ship with MP3 encoding and decoding capabilities built in, but requires you to separately download and install the codec so as not to pollute the FOSS package with proprietary, patented code. That’s no longer the case, and indeed Red Hat has already announced that Fedora will now ship with MP3 capabilities built in (hat tip there to one of the few blogs that is reporting this story properly). Expect Audacity and countless other FOSS apps to follow suit soon. As for non-open-source software, it’s one less patent number on the long lists of licenses that live on loading splash screens and About dialogues, and a little bit of saved cost. All around, it’s the removal of a barrier to building apps and tools that work with this ubiquitous audio format.

Does that sound like death to you?

So does Fraunhofer’s announcement actually mean anything? Well, a little bit: as noted, it actually hasn’t been 100% clear when all the patents would expire, due to the size and complexity of the patent thicket in the overall MPEG ecosystem. It was generally agreed that all patents covering MP3s would expire this year, and many had pegged the date as the end of April, but this was much harder to confirm. Fraunhofer’s announcement does not offer any specific information to make this determination easier (since it doesn’t admit that this has anything to do with patent expiry at all), but developers like Red Hat are taking it as a sign that the patents are officially expired and the format is free to use.

While it’s frustrating that Fraunhofer issued such a misleading statement, it’s even more frustrating that so much of the media uncritically parroted it. Some also decided to throw in some scattershot links to various questionable studies claiming MP3 compression has negative effects like stripping out the “emotion” from music (that particular study was conducted on just 20 college students, and used MP3s encoded at a bit-rate well below the modern norm for music distribution) to bolster the idea that MP3 compression must be replaced by the still-patented AAC codec. I’m sure Fraunhofer was grateful.

So, no: the MP3 is not dead. Its creators have not killed it. Like Pepe the Frog, it’s alive and well and probably isn’t going anywhere for a long time — except in this case we can actually be happy about that fact.

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Comments on “The MP3 Is About As 'Dead' As Pepe The Frog”

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87 Comments
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“nobody paying for music (aka piracy) will kill the industry”

Fortunately, in the real world, nowhere near 100% of music is pirated, there’s huge numbers of ways to make money that didn’t exist before and easy ways to gain exposure and fans that weren’t available in previous eras. Sure, most artists aren’t getting the money they used to when major labels dominated everything and people had to pay $20 for an album with 2 tracks they wanted and filler they didn’t. But, most artists didn’t make that money back then either.

“nobody will make music anymore”

Nothing says “I only listen to the music spoon fed to me by major corporations” like the belief that people will only make music if they’re paid obscene amounts of money. Even many of major artists you’re exposed to now started their careers making music for the love of it for no payment.

“youtube and soundcloud, et al have a different opinion”

Because they provide tools used by a huge number of musicians and have a better handle on the entire music industry than those who only obsess over the outdated recording distribution part of it?

x says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Of course, the outdated distribution part of it paid more than the new channels. You can call it bad because it paid the nasty capitalist companies (not that Google et al are that nice) but it did mean that musicians could earn a living from it. How many YouTube ad supported views for a worthwhile income?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“it paid more than the new channels”

“It” being that people bought an album for $20 to play as much as they wanted vs. renting a single track for a single play. Well, duh, of course it paid more. The question is that if one is far less in aggregate, is it because YouTube are doing bad things now to reduce their income? Or, was it that fans were getting massively ripped off in the past?

“You can call it bad because it paid the nasty capitalist companies”

No, I call it bad because it’s a dated business model that depends on market realities that no longer exist. Per item sales are not ever going to be as lucrative as they were in the early 90s, and rental income is never going to match sales income. That’s reality, and it’s not YouTube’s fault most people prefer to rent nowadays. There’s many other income streams available, though.

“it did mean that musicians could earn a living from it”

Very few did. Some actually came out record contracts still in debt after several albums and never recoup anything from future royalties.

Touring, merchandise, etc. have always paid more to musicians than record sales and radio play. That’s not magically changed because people go to YouTube instead of MTV.

“How many YouTube ad supported views for a worthwhile income?”

How many musicians supported themselves solely on radio airplay royalties? Most definitely needed to do something other than sit around waiting for that income to roll in. What’s changed, other than the fact that the public has more choice as to whether or not to listen to a specific artist on their broadcasts?

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

What PaulT says. Take a look at this: https://creatoracademy.youtube.com/page/lesson/revenue-basics?hl=en-GB

and this:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4007938/The-10-Highest-Paid-YouTube-stars.html

Right then, it’s possible to make money from YouTube if you’re massively popular. And we can say the same for copyright.

Andy says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I remember wanting one song on an album when pricing I found the album was a few pence higher than the single, so I was paying almost as much for an album as I was for a single song I wanted. I do not remember what I ended up doing I may have just recorded the song from the radio or a friend.

The reason I do not support copyright at all is that I was forced to spend money on crap I did not want due to it being bundled or overpriced..Every time I download a song from the multitude of legal sources online i think of how i am taking money back from the money i was forced to pay, still a few decades of downloads until i belive i break even.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Hmmm… If I saw a single for nearly the same price as an album, I’d usually buy the album since that would be a bargain. Unless the single was priced at a normal album price, in which case I’d question the store’s sticker placement above all else!

But, I’ve maintained for years that the industry’s woes aren’t mainly to do with piracy or lower per unit pricing, etc. The main reason is that unbundling is the norm. Sure, people can buy the album if they wish, and some still stick to making certain tracks album only in a desperate attempt to force album sales. But, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that if a customer wants track X, and they used to have to pay $10 for a CD, but now they can pay $1 for just the track they want, the revenue might drop by a factor of 10.

That doesn’t mean that iTunes is ripping labels off with the $1/track (as they used to be priced). It means that the labels built their business around being able to rip customers off by forcing them to buy a $10+ product when they didn’t want most of it. That’s why they get no sympathy – customers knew they were being ripped off for a long time, they just didn’t used to have a choice about it.

Same with streaming – if people choose to rent rather than buy, you’re going to get less money. If you can’t work out how to get people to buy full albums again, that doesn’t mean the companies allowing rentals are evil or that they need to pay you the same as you used to get when you could make everyone buy albums.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Yes, me too.
But back in the day the strategy was to put an “unreleased” song in the single, so if you really wanted to listen to that baby you would have to pay for the single too (almost as much as the LP as you mentioned)…for an unreleased ONE song and another one or couple songs already found in the album.
This and many other greedy practices is why NOW people don’t want to pay.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Don’t forget the re-releases of albums and regional variations. Want that new track that they put on a re-release or the bonuses they put on the Japanese release? Sorry, you’ve got to pony up the whole album price again, since you bought the first version when it came out because you were already a fan.

So, yeah, completists might have to buy 4 copies of the album and 4-5 singles to get all the track from their band. Record labels are then somehow shocked at lower income now that people can buy the album plus a few individual songs, and aghast at the fact that people who used to do this dared to download the tracks that weren’t easily available to them.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t know that it needs to be. When you hear about the poor quality of MP3, people are usually talking about 96kbit/s recordings. But most people are storing their MP3s at much higher bitrates. The quality is fine.

The other argument is that AAC can store the same quality music in a file a few percent smaller. But so what? Music files are tiny compared to HD movies. It’s not an issue, even on a phone, even for thousands of songs.

I’ll stick to MP3 for compatibility. If there’s a newer, optimized implementation, I’ll stick to the old implementation for compatibility.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

When you hear about poor quality mp3, you’re talking about poor encoders. Like many other formats, mp3 is a PERCEPTUAL encoded format – the encoder attempts to throw away info that the mind doesn’t recognize, or info that isn’t as critical to quality, then outputs that data in a specific bitstream. The key to good quality is in those parts that recognize what can be thrown out/minimized, and what must be retained.

Mp3 encoders have gotten far better over the years, especially at low bitrates. An mp3 encoded TODAY at <128kbps sounds far better than one done at the same rate a decade ago.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There’s also the playback issue. It doesn’t matter how perfect and losslessly a song is being played if someone’s listening to it on standard earbuds on a busy street, a car stereo on moderate volume in traffic or listening on their Echo Dot’s built in speaker. The people obsessing over this aspect don’t seem to realise that the majority of people aren’t listening to all their music in a perfectly acoustically set up listening room.

That’s how it’s always been, of course. No matter how some people fetishise vinyl, lots of people decades ago were listening of a lower quality cassette or through AM radio. The masses will take convenience and portability over quality every time.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Yeah, I see the same argument about movies all the time when people are whining about people watching their films on a phone.

Look, I appreciate the artistry, but people who are going to choose what’s best for them, not your product. David Lean might have created astonishing widescreen colour cinematography for Laurence Of Arabia, but lots of people first saw the film on TV, panned & scanned on an 11″ black & white portable TV. Some guy watching your modern movie on a tablet on a bus might not want to go to a cinema. That’s perfectly OK, though.

It’s only now that people think they can control every aspect of how the art is consumed that i hear so much whining about it.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Oh, there’ve been media snobs as long as there’s been media. It’s nothing new; it’s just repackaged.

It’s still nice to see movies in the theater, or at least at 1080p with a 5.1 surround system in my living room. And it’s nice to hear music in the best version possible, whatever that may be. (Pono was too rich for my blood, but I do own a FiiO.)

But I’m still going to listen to the radio on my commute. And while I can’t really relate to wanting to watch Laurence of Arabia on a phone, hey, if somebody wants to watch Laurence of Arabia on a phone, my hat’s off to them.

I don’t really have a problem with Neil Young pushing for a high-quality music listening experience for people who want that. But if he doesn’t want people listening to his music in less-than-optimal acoustic circumstances, I’ve got some bad news for him.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

“while I can’t really relate to wanting to watch Laurence of Arabia on a phone, hey, if somebody wants to watch Laurence of Arabia on a phone, my hat’s off to them.”

In this day and age, I’d prefer people to be watching films like Laurence Of Arabia and appreciating it whatever its format to them just blindly accepting whatever this week’s new product is. 4K and 70mm projection is still available for the purists, but if the guy watching it on the phone is at least interested enough to do that, that’s what matters.

The comment I made about watching it on an 11″ B&W TV wasn’t random, by the way, it’s the way I first watched it as a kid. I’ve seen it “properly” since, of course, but that first viewing was great even if Lean would not have approved.

The fact is, while it’s understandable that artists have optimal experiences in mind, once the art is public they have no control, nor should they. It’s when they try to exact control that this becomes problematic, but as long as they just whine about it that doesn’t matter. Sorry, if I have X time to consume media and Y devices to play back on, I’m going to be doing it in the way that suits me at the time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I wonder if the format can be optimized someway to give it further longevity?

Not likely. Projects like LAME (which basically ignored the patents) have pushed it pretty far already, and new codecs like Opus don’t seem to be hurting due to a lack of any specific patented technique (they’ve already surpassed MP3 in everything but compatibility).

So does Fraunhofer’s announcement actually mean anything? Well, a little bit: as noted, it actually hasn’t been 100% clear when all the patents would expire… but developers like Red Hat are taking it as a sign that the patents are officially expired and the format is free to use.

It’s possible they want to introduce more uncertainty so people will license AAC instead of using MP3 freely. It would’ve worked better if they’d done it last year.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I use an MP3 software player on my computer, that dates back to the days when even operating systems were distributed on floppy disks. It’s almost as bare bones as an MP3 player gets, but it still runs on modern computers.

Takes up a little over 400 kilobytes of hard drive space, and consists of two files. All it does is play MP3s. And it sounds as amazing today as it did almost 20 years ago.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

We had even smaller programs on the Amiga (all 100% assembly, of course) that played mp1, mp2, and mp3 audio files. For a while, it looked like mp2 was going to be the dominant audio format as mp3 took a magnitude more processing power for a minor increase in quality, and then processing power just starting soaring and it was no longer a consideration.

By the way, to be pedantic, the labels we give these audio formats are not strictly accurate. MP1/2/3 are actually MPEG-1 Layer 1/2/3 – there were three different ways to encode audio as part of the MPEG-1 specification. However, at the time file extensions were limited (on MS systems) to three characters, so the extensions for the three formats were shortened to fit, becoming .mp1/.mp2/.mp3.

DannyB (profile) says:

MP3 is not dead, it's just resting

While there may be better formats that mp3, the one thing mp3 has going for it is that it is deeply entrenched. Universal support. Show me an audio player device, phone, tablet or software application that doesn’t support mp3. Similarly mp3 audio support is near universal in software that supports video playback.

I would go back and re-rip everything in Flac now. If I cared enough. Disk space is a lot cheaper today than in the mp3 heyday.

Anonymous Coward says:

poor Pepe

Just an innocent little cartoon frog who was the victim of identity theft. It wasn’t his fault that people imbued him with thier own ideology. Leave Pepe alone. Sad face.

Love,

Kek

PS mp3s rock, mp4s suck. Throwing away a perfectly good listening device that plays mp3s just adds to the planet’s garbage piles. Save the planet, keep mp3.

Anonymous Coward says:

This shows that many reporters don,t understand
technology or they just rewrite press releases
they recieve from companys.
without looking into the real story.
if you look into the history of mp3 it was offered to big companys as an effecient audio format for films and tv production.It became popular as a format for downloading and storing files on the web
when broadband speeds were slow .
How can a format be dead when millions of users
use it to store files and download podcasts every day.
If you want to see a dead format see
HD DVD or betamax video.
no one is producing new content in betamax video.
With the patents no longer being licensed it will
be used in more programs and versions of linux
since its free to use .
big companys cant force people to use new formats ,
The public has lost interest in 3d tv.
since the patents have expired no one company has the right to say mp3 is dead.
Ordinary users and media companys will continue to
use the mp3 format for the forseeable future .

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Should take note from Happy Birthday "owner"

(Attempting) Not to be too cynical but… And?

While yes Warner/Chappell were eventually faced with a $14 million settlement, with estimates of $50 million profits in ‘licensing fees’ they still came out way ahead.

Sure someone would have eventually noticed and taken them to court, but unless the penalty was more than the profits it still would haven been highly profitable fraud, and if the happy birthday case was anything to go off of then the odds of a penalty high enough for said fraud not being worth it would have been fairly low.

(To be clear, I in no way endorse, condone or support such fraudulent activity, I’m just noting that for the profit-centered sociopath with the system we currently have in place it’s very profitable.)

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Should take note from Happy Birthday "owner"

I think there’s a pretty significant difference between how you can expect a German research organization and an American music publisher to operate.

Even if you consider Fraunhofer to be a purely mercenary organization (and I’ve certainly got some opinions on the subject of software patents), it’s got plenty of incentive to move on and focus on pushing H.264/AAC.

Anon says:

Interesting

I wondered when all these limiting tech patents would start to die.
It’s about time, and good that this one is still relevant.
Yes, all my music – 65GB – is MP3. Until the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s come back, I don’t see my music files changing to any other format.

(Do you think Apple will stop playing MP3’s on iPhones? I suspect Jobs might have done so, but not Cook…)

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The first time I ripped all my CDs, I did so at 192kbps MP3 to make them all fit in the limited storage I had available. The next time I ripped all my CDs (about a decade later, and I had probably three times as many to rip), I ripped them at 320kbps in Ogg-Vorbis format. 320kbps oggs are close enough to lossless that you’d need an expert on high-quality equipment to tell the difference. I’m not such an expert, nor do I have that quality of equipment, so I don’t see the need to rip to lossless, so I have very few FLAC rips.

Anon says:

Re: Spoken like...

MP3s sound like ass and are for tweens.

Spoken like someone who never listened to pops, ticks, and the sound of the needle sliding through the groove on the quiet bits of the record. Or the wow from a stretched tape. Cd and MP3 were head and shoulder above previous options, and MP3 allowed me to collect a massive amount of the music I remember.

Too bad that by the time the record companies figured this out, I had already gotten what I needed from Napster. I bought several hundred records; then I bought several hundred CD’s. (I still have over 600 CD’s in the basement, can’t think of the last time I listed to music on a CD.) When I wanted stuff from iTunes, it would only play on a few devices; half my players were MP3 not I-Whatever. Thank you Napster from making me pay the music companies all over again.

Now, how long before the book publishers figure out that people will not always pay hardcover prices for a data file download? So far, Pirate Bay is winning.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: slashdot had it right.

It’s genuinely sad that some people actually seem to think like that – that nobody will ever create anything unless they’re specifically paid to do so.

Such a person must have had a depressing childhood devoid of joy and creativity, while doomed to only consume the most soulless production line manufactured “art. All because they can’t think of anything worthwhile not pre-approved by a corporate board and injected into moulds by drones. What an empty existence that must be.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's dead, Jim

One thing many seem to ignore in their reporting that is mp3 is old, and as better algorithms have been created, it has become obsolete.
Only reasons it keeps haunting us are legacy hardware (for which the licensing fees have already been paid yet remain use) and the audio files you already have but don’t want to transcode to more efficient format at the cost of a slight loss in audio quality.

Any newly released content should use opus which is the current de facto standard for lossy audio codecs.

Interesting to note is that modern “standard” codecs (opus, flac, vp8, av1) are open and free to use. Content creators, distributors and tech companies don’t want put up with ridiculous licensing fees, so they decided create their own free codecs. Companies like Dolby, THX and their ilk are facing same fate as cable TV. For now they still have cinema business, but in decade or two? I don’t think so.

Seegras (profile) says:

These patents have been granted illegally anyway

I can’t see what the deal is, and frankly, I can’t see why anyone bothered. The reason is that
"
(2) The following in particular shall not be regarded as inventions within the meaning of paragraph 1:
(c) schemes, rules and methods for performing mental acts, playing games or doing business, and programs for computers; "

https://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/html/epc/2016/e/ar52.html

In other words, all these patents to Fraunhofer have been granted illegally by the EPO. The trouble with the EPO is that it’s not a government body, but only exists as a result of the EPC treaty, and THERE IS NO JURISDICTION. So you can’t actually hold them responsible for criminally granting patents.

On the other hand if you ever challenge such a patent, it will immediately become void, as there is no legal base for it’s existence in the first place. And of course Fraunhofer and all beneficiaries of these illegally granted patents try to avoid any challenge to its patents, so they actually don’t enforce them at all. They just try to convince people that they could enforce them, and have them pay voluntarily. It’s fraud in essence.

And that is why you completely ignore any and all patents on software in Europe.

(Be advised that the situation in the US is slightly different, as some courts have actually upheld illegally granted patents on software, due to a different definition of algorithm in patent law than in mathematics. Actually, patent courts have defined algorithms as something not belonging to mathematics. You can’t argue with such nutcases).

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re: These patents have been granted illegally anyway

In the US, the dreaded Moby Dick support device is still active: http://www.groklaw.net/comment.php?mode=display&sid=20110127193058685&title=How%20is%20information%20a%20device%3F&type=article&order=&hideanonymous=0&pid=0#c898448

Read it, weep.

It’s not me endorsing US patents (me, being European anyway), it’s US patent courts being total fruit-loops.

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