MP3 codecs no longer free for GPL use

Or were they ever?

There's a nice controversy brewing over a semantic change in Thomson Multimedia's MP3 licensing policy which has got the open-source community's knickers in a twist. According to an open letter to Thompson from Xiph.org CEO Emmett Plant, an exemption from regular licensing fees for GPL'd software has just been withdrawn.

"Thank you for setting a precedent in providing free technology until the world has become hooked on it, and then charging a lot of money afterwards," the letter remarks sarcastically.

But Thomson says there was never any such thing as free codecs for commercial use, as permitted by the GPL, according to a story by NewsForge's Robin Miller.

Thomson's policy "has always been to allow free use of the company's MP3 patents in 'freely distributable software' while charging royalties to all commercial software or hardware makers that use Thomson's MP3 technology," NewsForge quotes the company as saying. "If Thomson's terms are not compatible with the GPL today, then they never were."

So apparently, the MP3 codec is not GPL-friendly, but can be used free if you produce a free application. Only that's not quite certain, as Thomson is calling this a 'policy'.

According to the old language, "no license fee is expected for desktop software mp3 decoders/players that are distributed free-of-charge via the Internet for personal use of end-users."

But now that's changed. The current royalty page says nothing of the sort. There's no longer any official assurance that Thomson won't exercise its patents against free applications one day down the road. Their 'policy' can change at any time. Whether or not it will is another question. But if anyone's worried, they can of course switch to Ogg Vorbis for a bit of insurance. ®

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