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When does the patent on the mp3 file format expire?
July 22, 2004 8:27 AM   Subscribe

The GIF patent finally expired (Woohoo!) which got me wondering: When does the mp3 patent expire? I couldn't get google to cough up the answer.
posted by gwint to Technology (15 answers total)
 
Like most patents, I think it varies by country (US-valid patents that have already expired overseas are a huge IP issue). At least some of the patents are apparently held by a German company.

You may have already found it, but this page gives an overview of the situation, and has some links that go into even more depth.
posted by LairBob at 8:43 AM on July 22, 2004


I think this is a different issue. GIF patents were a problem because they prevented free software from manipulating or creating GIFs. But we have plenty of free applications that work with MP3.

"MP3 means MPEG Audio Layer 3. It is an audio compression technology being a part of the MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 specifications. MP3 compresses CD quality sound by a factor of 8-12, while maintaining almost the same high-fidelity sound quality. MP3 is developed by a German research institute called Frauenhofer. The company Thomson Multimedia has patented MP3 in USA and in German
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:44 AM on July 22, 2004


Lots of MP3 licensing links here.
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:45 AM on July 22, 2004


Thompson and FHG's MP3 licensing page has a list of patents they say apply to MP3. Most of them were applied for in the mid-1990s, so that means they'll be around until the mid-2010s.
posted by zsazsa at 8:45 AM on July 22, 2004


Oops. On further reading, it seems I was wrong, you do need to pay a license fee to create applications using MP3 standards. Maybe.
posted by y6y6y6 at 8:48 AM on July 22, 2004


y6y6y6, Thompson says if you want to make and distribute an application that supports MP3 encoding or decoding, you have to pay. They've kept mum on Free/Open Source software, but I'm sure if they wanted to, they could put the kibosh on LAME use/distribution/development in the countries they have patents in, just like Unisys did with LZW.

As far as commercial-but free software goes, the licensees page includes Apple and Nullsoft, so when you use iTunes or Winamp, that means they've paid for your free download.
posted by zsazsa at 8:53 AM on July 22, 2004


Yeah, from this google answers thread it appears Thompson and FHG have been successful in licencing mp3 tech. I remember back in the old days (late 90s) a bunch of free mp3 encoders were killed off because FHG wanted fees, but it seems mp3 players don't fall under the same restriction (?)
posted by gwint at 8:59 AM on July 22, 2004


Why isn't Ogg-vorbis catching on with developers?
posted by mecran01 at 10:03 AM on July 22, 2004


I very often wonder that myself, mercran...

For me, my mp3-cd-player can't handle 'em. (Of course, since I only use the thing once in a blue moon, I guess that isn't a great explanation.)

I suspect, overall, the answer is just that mp3 is good enough that, for most people, the format switch isn't worth the effort. (Or potential for effort.) The Thompson/FHG patent holders seem to be playing nice benign dictators, and the Ogg file-size savings don't matter so much in our world of big, big hard drives. And at a high enough bitrate, none but the most audiophiliac among us can tell the difference between the mp3 and the CD, so the quality improvement doesn't really matter. Ogg may be better, but mp3 is 'good enough' and well entrenched.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:41 AM on July 22, 2004


I was thinking about mp3 vs Ogg in comparison to GIF vs PNG-- with the former, as kaibutsu just said, there isn't much qualitative difference so it's really just an issue of waiting for the patent to run out and then the world has a great, free digital music format, at which point Ogg seems to be somewhat irrelevant, meanwhile PNG does have some technical advantages to GIF, although IE's poor implementation mitigates that somewhat.
posted by gwint at 1:03 PM on July 22, 2004


Yeah, but wouldn't the cost of players go down without the licensing fees? Oh well.
posted by mecran01 at 1:51 PM on July 22, 2004


Ogg isn't catching on because it has a silly-sounding name. If I say "I have mp3s", I sound kinda cool. If I say "I have oggs", I sound like a freakin' idiot (who's making some kind of exotic omlette). I'd bet money that changing the name of ogg to "mu5" or something would make it catch on faster.
posted by reklaw at 2:25 PM on July 22, 2004


Ogg can do various numbers of channels (5.1 surround sound, for instance) while MP3 is limited to stereo, at best. So ogg has technical advantages and a stupid name.
posted by NortonDC at 4:47 PM on July 22, 2004


They should be called xpa's -- xiph audio. Or vrb's ... or something besides oggs.

Then again, the remarkably similar word "blog" caught on.
posted by weston at 11:40 PM on July 22, 2004


MP3 compresses CD quality sound by a factor of 8-12, while maintaining almost the same high-fidelity sound quality.

I beg to differ. Through crappy PC speakers or earbuds that may be true, but through any reasonably high fidelity playback system mp3s suck eggs by comparison to CD sound.

As far as the patents go, Fraunhofer has a list of their patents. You can calculate their expiration dates from their filing dates and issue dates. Everywhere but the US figure on 20 years from filing in that country. For the US it used to be 17 years from grant, but is now 20 years from filing of the earliest patent to which priority in the US is claimed. (On the face of a patent you will see that some cite prior US applications.) Applications filed prior to June 8, 1995 are grand fathered and extend to the longer of 20 years from filing or 17 years from grant. The mp3 patents appear to have a lot of time to go.
posted by caddis at 6:01 AM on July 23, 2004


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