Last month, the company that invented the MP3 file format posted a short note on its website announcing that it would no longer license the use of its codec. This prompted journalists to announce that the MP3 is "officially dead," murdered by its maker. While it is indeed a nice time to reflect on the history of the file format that changed the music industry forever, make no mistake: The MP3 is still very much alive, perhaps moreso than it was a month ago.
Invented and patented by a German company called Fraunhofer IIS in the late 1980s, the MP3 became the most dominant audio codec in history because it was the compression format of choice for music pirates, according to Stephen Witt, an MP3 historian and author of How Music Got Free. But because it owned the patent, Fraunhofer made a killing by licensing the use of MP3s to software and hardware companies—for years, Fraunhofer earned a small cut of every MP3 player and iPod sold; it also earned money from audio software companies, which had to pay to include MP3 encoding capabilities in their programs.
Fraunhofer's announcement notes that the company is "terminating" the "licensing program" for the MP3, opening the door for royalty- and licensing-free use of the format. While it's true that there are more efficient and higher quality methods of encoding audio these days (Spotify, iTunes, and other streaming services use OGG or AAC), this means that it's now easier to make MP3s than it has ever been.
"Even Fraunhofer didn't say the format was dead"
"If you look carefully, they weren't announcing the death of the mp3, they're announcing the end of their licensing program," Witt told me. "That program has been in decline for years because of streaming, but now you no longer have to go to Fraunhofer to get their permission to use it. Fraunhofer made many billions of dollars of this thing, but as a profit source for them, it's over. Now it's kind of free technology and free use."
People who create software, hardware, and other things on the internet do not have the capability to decide when they die
Witt said this move was a long time coming and was easily predictable—the patents Fraunhofer relied on have expired and so even if it wanted to, it couldn't have maintained the control over the audio codec that it once enjoyed: "Even Fraunhofer didn't say the format was dead," Witt said.
On top of that, we all know that people who create software, hardware, and other things on the internet do not have the capability to decide when they die. Just as Pepe lives on despite its artist having a funeral for him earlier this month; just as hospitals, telecom companies, and other enterprise services are getting hit with Ransomware for using the "dead" Windows XP; just as there are still healthy communities of Zune and iPod Classic users and new operating systems for the Apple II, a 40-year-old computer.
"I don't think the locally stored file is completely dead and it won't be for some time," Witt said. "There's always an afterlife for these things."
MP3s in particular feel like an odd thing to mourn. Most of us know MP3s as the files you torrented, ripped from CDs, downloaded from Napster, or bought online. They are generally considered locally stored files that you play offline. But even back in the 1980s, they were designed as a means for streaming music. And so there's been a small evolution, but no "death" here.
"The impetus for creating the MP3, the original technological vision was they would take data stored on compact discs, compress it, and then stream it to telephones," Witt said. "That's why it was developed—30 years later, their vision came true."
More than a file format, the MP3 is more of an underlying technology that formats like AAC and OGG have borrowed heavily from to accomplish was the MP3 was designed to do.
"The file appendage on the file format is not as important as the compression algorithms and the underlying technology that makes it run," Witt said. "Its DNA is used in every streaming service and so it's not obsolete in the way an 8 track is obsolete. The basic technology hasn't changed."