Thursday, April 12, 2007

Will patents kill the MP3 format?

Recently, Microsoft lost a case filed by Alcatel-Lucent with regards to patent infringement of MP3 technologies owned by the later. In Lucent Techs. Inc. v. Gateway, a jury awarded 1.5 billion in damages to the plaintiff and against Gateway, Dell, Microsoft and other defendants for using patented technology without a licence. Alcatel-Lucent owns two patents, US 5,627,938 and a reissue of the same. Alcatel's claim is for "Rate loop processor for perceptual encoder/decoder". The abstract for the patent reads:

"A method and apparatus for quantizing audio signals is disclosed which advantageously produces a quantized audio signal which can be encoded within an acceptable range. Advantageously, the quantizer uses a scale factor which is interpolated between a threshold based on the calculated threshold of hearing at a given frequency and the absolute threshold of hearing at the same frequency."
Defendants claimed that they had already licensed technology from the Fraunhofer Institute, which was perceived to own the patent. However, this ruling seems to establish that all MP3 licensing should go to Lucent, and therefore many companies may be getting nervous, as they could be sued next.

The case have prompted some to imagine the much advertised demise of the MP3 file format. I usually get a distinct feeling of deja-vu when reading such comments, as I have been reading about the demise of MP3 since 1997. True, the patent may prove too cumbersome for some companies, but I'm afraid that the issue is not one for the developers, it's one for the users. Consumers use Mp3, it's the standard format, therefore, it will continue to be used until they can convince millions of people to convert their music to other formats. The closest the market will get to change is through built-in formats in other systems. iTunes and Windows Media Player already use their own proprietary systems, but they have not even dented MP3's prevalence. The first thing I do when installing iTunes is to change the ripping settings to save files into MP3.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It'll be technological developments not patents to kill off MP3. MP3 (particularly low quality MP3 as offered from iTunes) was popular when storage and bandwidth was at a premium. That's not such an important consideration now, so lossless formats will begin to surface more frequently in the mainstream.