Reports of the MP3's death have been greatly exaggerated. Earlier this month, one of the patent holders for the audio file type, the German technology institute Fraunhofer, announced that in April it had allowed its patents to expire.
Fraunhofer releasing its patents doesn’t mean MP3s will cease to exist, though — it simply means the ubiquitous file type has been released into the wild, making it easier for developers who had previously been unable to support the file type to now go forth and use the file extension any way they want.
But many in the media saw it differently, churning out a sea of articles on the “death” of the MP3 file and declaring that Fraunhofer released the patents because the institute “didn’t want to keep it on life support.”
Was the tolling of the death knell premature? Though the MP3 file might have been eclipsed among audiophiles by other file compression technology that arguably delivers better sound quality, it has yet to be replaced in the public eye; after all, we still refer to audio devices as “MP3 players,” not, for example, “AAC players.”
Then again, with so much music consumption happening through streaming media and phone apps, MP3 players themselves seem like analog technology — and major music technology players like Apple jettisoned the MP3 years ago for greener pastures in the form of these “better” file types.
So which is it — are MP3s DOA, or finally free?
The answer is kind of complicated. Sure, the MP3 isn’t what it used to be — an inescapable, ubiquitous part of the digital musical landscape — but it’s also not going anywhere.
Be free, MP3, be free
The expiration of Fraunhofer’s patents means that as of April, the MP3 is no longer tethered to the host of encoding licenses that hindered its development since the first patent was filed in 1987. In practical terms, that means that anyone making a piece of audio software can now support encoding and compression for MP3 files without having to pay a licensing fee.
This open access to the file type is a good thing, both for developers who need to make their software support the greatest range of file formats possible, and for laypeople who may be familiar with “.mp3” as a file extension but not much else.
For most of us, the news might not change much, because MP3s come pre-licensed on most of our phones and computers. But for app developers, open source software nerds, and especially Linux users, the news is significant. For example, before the Fraunhofer announcement, several pieces of software that run on Linux, like Fedora, Tumbleweed, and Vivaldi, had to use third-party hacks in order to work around MP3 licensing requirements. After the licenses expired, developers began to immediately enable support.
So why has there been so much haste to declare the format dead?
For starters, the Fraunhofer Institute owns patents on another file format that is generally considered to be better — the AAC file, or Advanced Audio Codec. YouTube has plenty of videos attempting to audibly illustrate the difference between the sound quality of an MP3 file and an AAC, but the gist is that AAC files are generally thought to sound better at lower compression rates, or bitrates. Compared with a standard MP3 file, an AAC file sounds sharper and takes up less space on your computer.
This quality difference is partly why Bernhard Grill, director of Fraunhofer’s audio encoding initiatives, told NPR that the AAC file should be considered “the de facto standard for music download and videos on mobile phones.”
However, there’s a huge catch: Fraunhofer also controls the licensing for the AAC file format, and makes money off the licensing fees. So of course Fraunhofer’s director wants it to be considered the “de facto standard” file format we should be using.
In actuality, there are already several other file formats, notably FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and Opus, that don’t come with the same licensing restrictions but do offer the same amount of quality as an AAC. So if developers were prioritizing musical quality, optimized storage space, and accessibility for all, the new “de facto standard” could easily be one of these other free, open source file formats.
But there are also plenty of other reasons why it’s a bit silly to declare the MP3 in its current state to be dead, and they all boil down to two facts: The MP3 is everywhere — and as digital audio formats go, it’s still pretty great.
Like other classic file formats before them, MP3s are here to stay
Marco Arment, developer of the Overcast podcast app, mounts a nice defense of the MP3 in a blog post about the inaccuracy of the media’s spin on the file. He notes that in terms of sound quality and file size, the difference between a standard-bitrate AAC and a standard-bitrate MP3 is pretty negligible for the average listener — though it’s arguable that what kind of music you’re listening to matters here as well. For most people, however, if you’re not doing a lot of deep sound editing and aren’t a hardcore audiophile, an MP3 is just fine.
This is especially relevant for the culture of podcasting, where the DIY nature of recording and uploading means most podcasts will gravitate toward the universal audio standard we all still use. Arment reports that, statistically, MP3 is the file extension of choice for podcasters, pointing out that “among the 50 million podcast episodes in Overcast’s database, 92 percent are MP3, and within the most popular 500 podcasts, 99 percent are MP3.”
Arment also compares the MP3 to another classic file extension that’s shaped the way we think about the internet — the JPEG:
MP3 is very old, but it’s the same age as JPEG, which has also long since been surpassed in quality by newer formats. JPEG is still ubiquitous ... because it’s good enough and supported everywhere, making it the most pragmatic choice most of the time.
In other words, most of us are going to keep using the MP3 for the same reason we still save images as JPEGs: The quality is fine for our purposes, it’s supported on all the software we use, and we’re used to it. Why wouldn’t we keep using it?
Expanding this comparison, one tech writer, Mac Observer’s Jeff Gamet, specifically compared the de-licensing of the MP3 to the GIF, which completely exploded across the internet and transformed internet culture as we know it — all after its patents expired in 2003. It’s hard to see how a file format as ubiquitous as the MP3 could become even more integral to the internet, but the beauty of unrestricted, open access to data is that you never know where that access is going to lead.
So don’t lower the flags for the MP3 just yet, or hold a funeral for your Zune. On the internet, things live and die not by license expiration dates, but by the public’s willingness to keep uploading and downloading them.
And by that standard, the MP3 is almost certainly here to stay.