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MP3 owners get stroppy with open source coders

Even as MP3 Pro racks up 600,000 downloads in two weeks

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MP3 Pro is proving just as popular as its predecessor - the MP3 digital audio format. Pro has only been available for just under two weeks, and the software has already been downloaded above 600,000 times.

So says co-developer Thomson Multimedia, which posted demo software on 14 June. The demo release is limited to 64Kbps encoding - but can generate files half the size of a 64Kbps MP3 encoder.

MP3 Pro was developed by Coding Technologies from the original work done by Thomson and Germany's Fraunhofer Institute. Essentially, it's about catching up with Microsoft's WMA format which has eclipsed MP3 in both sound quality and level of compression.

That said, feedback from Register readers suggests that while MP3 Pro does indeed sound better than MP3, subjectively, WMA 8 has the advantage on quality.

The MP3 partners won't win themselves any friends for their licensing policy, which has seen them bashing open source MP3 encoder development efforts.

Fraunhofer and Thomson's ownership of key technologies incorporated into MP3 allows them to demand royalties from anyone using their intellectual property. This despite the fact that MP3 is, nominally at least, an open standard. The fees apply to anyone who produces a commercial MP3 player and all MP3 encoders, be they commercial or freeware.

Hence the message Dutch developer 8Hz Productions ("two students in Amsterdam programming for the sake of learning") recently received from Fraunhofer regarding its open source 8Hz-MP3 software. Says the organisation: "We have received an email from Fraunhofer (as have more developers) to negotiate the licensing for the MP3 encoder. As we are poor students, paying the license is not really a viable option."

Fraunhofer wanted $25,000 a year from the two students

So what is viable? Well, nothing beyond charging for the software or scrapping the project. 8Hz has chosen the latter: "We have decided to shut down the 8Hz-MP3 section and stop the development of the 8Hz-MP3 encoder until further notice."

Another project, BladeEnc, has faced similar demands. Development lead Tord Jansson pulled the binary version of the encoder, restricting downloads to copies of the source code, in order to avoid the wrath of Thomson and Fraunhofer.

Initially, the two companies claimed Jansson was infringing a number of their patents. When he proved that wasn't the case, they came up with some different ones he might be violating.

"I then came up with the solution that we are now using," Tord tells us. "BladeEnc is only available from me in source code form. Since the source code isn't a product using the technology on its own, but merely a blueprint for such a product, I dodge the patent claims. The blueprint has a lot of legal uses such as studying to learn the technology, researching on improvements of the technology and to be used in products that have been correctly licensed."

He adds: "But the only way to get that mess cleared out is
through the courts, which costs money and time, which Fraunhofer and Thomson have, but I don't."

Either project - or any other open source MP3 encoder, for that matter - could check out the open source codec, Ogg Vorbis, which offers comparable size and sound quality to MP3. We don't know if it's any good, and it's unlikely - for the time being at least - to be supported by portable music players, but with every aspect of its structure - encoder, decoder, data format - issued under the GPL (some bits come under the remit of the BSD licence), it's free to use. ®

Related Story

'Son of MP3' to launch today

Related Links

Ogg Vorbis
BladeEnc
8Hz MP3

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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