We’re all familiar with the MP3 file format. As far as most people are concerned, the format implies free music. The software required to play MP3 files is usually free as well. That said, neither of these things necessarily follow from use of the MP3 format.
What most people don’t realize is that the MP3 format itself is not free. If you want to create a device or a piece of software that plays back or creates MP3 files, you have to pay Thomson Consumer Electronics for a license to do so.
Companies that sell products that support MP3 are paying Thomson for each sale. That means Microsoft Windows, Apple’s Mac OS X and iPod. This even applies to software that is free for the end-user to download, such as Apple’s iTunes or Winamp. That’s right – Winamp had to pay for a license for every copy of the player that all of us got to download for free.
What the heck is Ogg Vorbis?
There is an alternative format that is a technical match to MP3 that is not encumbered with patent or licensing issues. The Ogg Vorbis format is as good or better than MP3 and is completely free (both in terms of price and licensing).
Why, then, hasn’t Ogg Vorbis taken off? I see a few reasons for this. The first is that the term “MP3” became a brand name associated with free music. Companies involved in music-related products and services wanted to be able to say “MP3”.
Apple had the opportunity to make the move when they introduced iTunes and the iPod. Both are compatible with MP3, but the default format is AAC, something Apple presumably used for the ability to control playback (“digital rights management”).
The most significant reason that Ogg Vorbis didn’t overtake MP3 is that MP3 did what people wanted. End users weren’t paying the license fee. Winamp was free, iTunes was free. Why change?
We see the real problem with a non-free file format when free/open-source software starts to become more prevalent on the rest of the desktop. Completely free/open-source desktop Linux distributions cannot include support for MP3 playback, because they would have to track (and pay for) each download. As a result, Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, and other popular Linux distributions can’t play a simple MP3 file out of the box. This is because the file is simple, but the lisencing is not.
Why Not Just Use Ogg Vorbis, Then?
What then, is a music publisher who cares about free and open software to do? I produce an amateur radio show made available for download in MP3 format. I would like to publish in Ogg Vorbis format, but a lot of my potential listeners would have to jump through hoops to be able to play the show.
Consider John Q. Listener. He’d like to listen to my radio show on his new iBook. However, iTunes doesn’t support Ogg Vorbis playback by default. A plug-in is available, but is he really going to go install it just to listen to my dorky little show? Even if John does find a way to play the Ogg Vorbis files on his laptop, he won’t be able to play them on his iPod. The same goes for overwhelming majority of computer users who are running Windows.
I want to support the open file format, but I also want people to listen to my show. I want people walking around with my favourite songs on their iPod. What am I to do? I have three options:
- Publish only in MP3 – This works for everyone but a small number of Linux users (most of whom know how to get MP3 playback for their Linux computers anyhow). Free file format be damned, John Q. Listener is walking around with my show on his iPod.
- Publish only in Ogg Vorbis – People learn about the format. Some may even find the software required to play it on the Mac or Windows PC. However, many (most?) people won’t bother listening since they don’t have support for the file format already installed. No one with an iPod can listen to it (unless they convert it to MP3, and it’s not that good of a show to be worth that kind of time and effort). The world is a better place, but I’ll never get famous this way…
- Publish two versions, one in MP3 and one in Ogg Vorbis – many online media outlets go this route with streaming formats (publishing simultaneously in Real, Windows Media, Quicktime formats) to ensure the widest possible reach. However, this adds a new layer of complexity for my John Q. Listener. Now, instead of just downloading and listening, he has to choose between two formats. He doesn’t care, he just wants to rawk. Also, much of the benefit of publishing in Ogg Vorbis is now lost, since only those who are already familiar with it and using it will bother choosing it as a format.
I went with option #1. I’m still not entirely comfortable with this, but I want as many people as possible to hear by show. Obviously, I’m not writing here with a clear recommendation. Rather, I hope to highlight the benefits and issues surrounding the move to free/open formats.
I’ll be writing more about the catch-22 of open formats, and with a bit more optimism, in the coming days.
The Catch-22 of Open Formats mini-series
- The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 1: Music (you are here)
- The Catch-22 of Open Format Adoption, Part 2: Instant Messaging
- Part 3: Coming soon