MP3, the digital audio coding format, changed the way we listen to music and drove the adoption of countless new devices over the last couple of decades. And now, it’s dead. The developer of the format announced this week that it has officially terminated its licensing program.
The gist of the story is pretty simple. The Fraunhofer Institute has licensed certain MP3 patents, and recently announced that program has come to an end:
On April 23, 2017, Technicolor’s mp3 licensing program for certain mp3 related patents and software of Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS has been terminated.
We thank all of our licensees for their great support in making mp3 the defacto audio codec in the world, during the past two decades.
The page then launches into a history lesson of sorts:
The development of mp3 started in the late 80s at Fraunhofer IIS, based on previous development results at the University Erlangen-Nuremberg. Although there are more efficient audio codecs with advanced features available today, mp3 is still very popular amongst consumers. However, most state-of-the-art media services such as streaming or TV and radio broadcasting use modern ISO-MPEG codecs such as the AAC family or in the future MPEG-H. Those can deliver more features and a higher audio quality at much lower bitrates compared to mp3.
David Lumb at Engadget summed up the news this way:
MP3, the format that revolutionized the way we consume (and steal) music since the 90s, has been officially retired — in a manner of speaking. The German research institution that created the format, The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, announced that it had terminated licensing for certain MP3-related patents…in other words, they didn’t want to keep it on life support, because there are better ways to store music in the year 2017. Rest now forever, MP3.
It is true that there are better options than the MP3 for some applications, but don’t be fooled. The reason the licensing plan is over is not that AAC is suddenly the savior of the world.
Quite simply, it’s because the MP3 patents have expired, as this marvelously-detailed post by Josh Cogliati outlines:
MP3 has at least three separate companies that claim to have patents, Alcatel-Lucent, Thompson and AudioMPEG. All their claimed US MP3 patents are listed in the automatically generated MP3 patent list. The last of these patents expires in April of 2017. If you only look at the MP3 patents filed before December 1992 (one year after the decoding spec was published), then the last decoding patent expires in September of 2015. AudioMPEG claims that their patents cover MPEG-1 layers 1,2 and 3. The other companies just talk about Layer 3. So, at the minimum, fully decoding and encoding MPEG-1 audio is patented.
The MP3 isn’t dead; it’s just not profitable anymore.