Why MP3 freedom matters

Yesterday I mentioned MP3 Freedom Day to a friend, and he asked why it mattered. That’s something I should have explained. The MP3 patent holders, principally Fraunhofer and Technicolor, demand payment for any use of MP3 technology.

They even go after distributors of open source code. The Register reports:

Fraunhofer and Thomson’s ownership of key technologies incorporated into MP3 allows them to demand royalties from anyone using their intellectual property. This despite the fact that MP3 is, nominally at least, an open standard. The fees apply to anyone who produces a commercial MP3 player and all MP3 encoders, be they commercial or freeware.

Hence the message Dutch developer 8Hz Productions (“two students in Amsterdam programming for the sake of learning”) recently received from Fraunhofer regarding its open source 8Hz-MP3 software. Says the organisation: “We have received an email from Fraunhofer (as have more developers) to negotiate the licensing for the MP3 encoder. As we are poor students, paying the license is not really a viable option.”

Fraunhofer wanted $25,000 a year from the two students

So what is viable? Well, nothing beyond charging for the software or scrapping the project. 8Hz has chosen the latter: “We have decided to shut down the 8Hz-MP3 section and stop the development of the 8Hz-MP3 encoder until further notice.”

As of today, there is no indication on mp3licensing.com that the patents will expire, tomorrow or ever. Perhaps they’re going to take down the site in the next couple of days. Somehow I doubt it. Perhaps they’re going to rely on people’s ignorance of the actual status of their patents. Or perhaps they’re working on some legal dodge that will let them keep MP3 under patent till the copyright on “Steamboat Willie” expires. I’ve seen claims that some unspecified MP3 patent is in force till 2020, but no explanation of the claim.

I’m not a lawyer. These blog posts aren’t legal advice.

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