Why Audio Format Matters

An invitation to audio producers to use Ogg Vorbis alongside MP3

The patents covering MP3 will reportedly all have expired by 2018, but similar problems will continue to arise as long as patents are permitted to restrict software development.

If you produce audio for general distribution, you probably spend 99.9% of your time thinking about form, content, and production quality, and 0.1% thinking about what audio format to distribute your recordings in.

And in an ideal world, this would be fine. Audio formats would be like the conventions of laying out a book, or like pitches and other building-blocks of music: containers of meaning, available for anyone to use, free of restrictions. You wouldn't have to worry about the consequences of distributing your material in MP3 format, any more than you would worry about putting a page number at the top of a page, or starting a book with a table of contents.

Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. MP3 is a patented format. What this means is that various companies have government-granted monopolies over certain aspects of the MP3 standard, such that whenever someone creates or listens to an MP3 file, even with software not written by one of those companies, the companies have the right to decide whether or not to permit that use of MP3. Typically what they do is demand money, of course. But the terms are entirely up to them: they can forbid you from using MP3 at all, if they want. If you've been using MP3 files and didn't know about this situation, then either a) someone else, usually a software maker, has been paying the royalties for you, or b) you've been unknowingly infringing on patents, and in theory could be sued for it.

The harm here goes deeper than just the danger to you. A software patent grants one party the exclusive right to use a certain mathematical fact. This right can then be bought and sold, even litigated over like a piece of property, and you can never predict what a new owner might do with it. This is not just an abstract possibility: MP3 patents have been the subject of multiple lawsuits, with damages totalling more than a billion dollars.

The most important issue here is not about the fees, it's about the freedom to communicate and to develop communications tools. Distribution formats such as MP3 are the containers of information exchange on the Internet. Imagine for a moment that someone had a patent on the modulated vibration of air molecules: you would need a license just to hold a conversation or play guitar for an audience. Fortunately, our government has long held that old, familiar methods of communication, like vibrating air molecules or writing symbols on pieces of paper, are not patentable: no one can own them, they are free for everyone to use. But until those same liberties are extended to newer, less familiar methods (like particular standards for representing sounds via digital encoding), we who generate audio works must take care what format we use—and require our listeners to use.

A way out: Ogg Vorbis format

Ogg Vorbis is an alternative to MP3. It gets high sound quality, can compress down to a smaller size than MP3 while still sounding good (thus saving you time and bandwidth costs), and best of all, is designed to be completely free of patents.

You won't sacrifice any technical quality by encoding your audio in Ogg Vorbis. The files sound fine, and most players know how to play them. But you will increase the total number of people who can listen to your tracks, and at the same time help the push for patent-free standards in distribution formats.

The Ogg Vorbis home page has all the information you need to both listen to and produce Vorbis-encoded files. The safest thing, for you and your listeners, would be to offer Ogg Vorbis files exclusively. But since there are still some players that can only handle MP3, and you don't want to lose audience, a first step is to offer both Ogg Vorbis and MP3, while explaining to your downloaders (perhaps by linking to this article) exactly why you support Ogg Vorbis.

And with Ogg Vorbis, you'll even gain some audience. Here's how:

Up till now, the MP3 patent owners have been clever enough not to harass individual users with demands for payment. They know that would stimulate popular awareness of (and eventually opposition to) the patents. Instead, they go after the makers of products that implement the MP3 format. The victims of these shakedowns shrug wearily and pay up, viewing it as just another cost of doing business, which is then passed on invisibly to users. However, not everyone is in a position to pay: some of your listeners use free software programs to play audio files. Because this software is freely copied and downloaded, there is no practical way for either the authors or the users to pay a patent fee—that is, to pay for the right to use the mathematical facts that underly the MP3 format. As a result, these programs cannot legally implement MP3, even though the tracks the users want to listen to may themselves be perfectly free! Because of this situation, some distributors of the GNU/Linux computer operating system—which has millions of users worldwide—have been unable to include MP3 players in their software distributions.

Luckily, you don't have to require such users to engage in civil disobedience every time they want to listen to your works. By offering Ogg Vorbis, you ensure that no listeners have to get involved with a patented distribution format unless they choose to, and that your audio works will never be hampered by unforseen licensing requirements. Eventually, the growing acceptance of Ogg Vorbis as a standard, coupled with increasingly unpredictable behavior by some of the MP3 patent holders, may make it impractical to offer MP3 files at all. But even before that day comes, Ogg Vorbis remains the only portable, royalty-free audio format on the Internet, and it's worth a little extra effort to support.