MP3 Isn’t Dead

The reports of the MP3 file format’s death have been greatly exaggerated. This past week, news sites around the internet ran stories claiming that the MP3 is dead. This seems to come from a misunderstanding of a press release, and then others trying to play copycat for clicks. So what’s the deal with MP3, and why do people think it died?

A Brief History of the MP3

There are lots of algorithms and techniques to compress and decompress data, which can be confusing for consumers. The Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), made up of scientists and engineers from around the world, work together to develop video and audio compression standards for device manufacturers to meet. By ensuring everything uses the same standard, normal people know that their DVD will work in any player (at least in their geographic region).

The first standard released by the group, MPEG-1 (creative!) was used for Video CD and early digital satellite television. It was replaced by MPEG-2, most notably the encoding standard for DVDs. MPEG-3 was never adopted, and MPEG-4 released later and dominated internet video until recently. It is also used on Blu-Rays. Video files encoded to MPEG-4 specifications typically use the .mp4 extension.

While MPEG-1 video is uncommon today, the standard did include something that lives on. MPEG’s standards are divided into parts and layers. MPEG-1 Layer 3 (or MP3) specified a lossy method of compressing and playing back audio. This technique came from work by the Fraunhofer Society, a multidisciplinary research organization based in Germany.

When it was new, MP3 did a much better job of reducing music file size than other compression algorithms. In those days of small hard drives, being able to fit many more songs into less space was a game changer. On top of that, MP3 can scale reasonably well. Users can specify a bitrate for the audio, allowing them to control the tradeoff between size and quality. While low bitrate, 64-128 kbps MP3 files can sound tinny and distorted, high bitrate MP3s sound nearly indistinguishable from uncompressed tracks.

MP3 received an update when MPEG-2 came out, but has for the most part stayed the same since it was codified in 1993. The format became ubiquitous, breaking away from video and becoming the de facto standard for audio.

Why Do People Think MP3 Died?

Fraunhofer owned a number of patents related to encoding and playback, since they did the research to create MP3. The Fraunhofer Society is far from being a patent troll, though: while they did charge licensing fees for products to integrate MP3 support, they used that money to fund research ranging from lasers and telecommunications to solar panels and molecular biology.

Over the years, the patents covering the MP3 format have expired. By 2012, all of the patents had run out in the EU. The US has a longer lifespan for patents, though, and Fraunhofer’s MP3 patents all expired there as of April 2017.

At the end of April, the Fraunhofer Society issued a press release. In short, it announced that they are no longer licensing MP3 patents (because they have expired), thanked everyone for supporting MP3 over the years, and mentioned that newer audio codecs are more efficient than MP3 anyway.

Unfortunately, “The MP3 is Officially Dead” makes a more interesting headline than “Licensing of MP3 Patents No Longer Necessary.” The first stories were published May 12th (2 weeks after the press release), and new ones with similar headlines are still coming out.

MP3 Shall Become More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine

In fact, the expiration of all the MP3 patents will lead to even wider adoption of MP3. Because a license for the patents was required per-user, it was uncommon for free or open source software projects to support MP3s out of the box. Many free audio programs, including Audicity, require users to install MP3 support separately, and link it in the program settings. Now that the patents are expired, there are no more license fees, and anyone can include MP3 technology in their software or hardware.

Even though hard drive space is much cheaper and more plentiful than it was when MP3 was born, new challenges have come up. The popularity of streaming music has made it impractical to use lossless compression with super-high bitrates for music. Spotify uses the open-source, unpatented Ogg Vorbis format. Apple Music streams proprietary AAC audio. Both formats provide better sound quality than MP3 at low bitrates. However, the difference is negligible at higher bitrates, and for those who care deeply about archival and preserving audio quality, FLAC is still the king of lossless compression.

Of course, plenty of music stores still sell songs in MP3, including Amazon, Google PlayBandcamp, and many more—and while they may stop one day, it certainly won’t be because the patent died and they were forced to.

So relax. Your MP3 files still work today, and will likely work in even more places in the future. The MP3 is dead, long live the MP3!

Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr

Dennis Stewart is a science fiction fan who wants you to be a little more paranoid. When he's not at his day job as a CipherTechs security engineer or writing for How-To Geek, he works a third job as a space trucker in Elite: Dangerous.