The End of the MP3?

Last month the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits ended its licensing program for the MP3 digital file format. This probably means that the MP3 format will begin fading away to be replaced over time by newer file formats. MP3 stands for MPEG Audio Layer III and was the first standard that allowed for the compression of audio files without loss of sound quality. The US patent for MP3 was issued in 1996 by Fraunhofer and since then they have collected royalties for all devices that were able to create or use files in that format.

While it might seem a bit odd to be reading a blog about the end of a file format, MP3 files have had a huge impact in the tech and music industries that they are partly responsible for the early success of the Internet.

The MP3 file revolutionized the way that people listened to music. In the decade before that there had been a proliferation of portable devices that would play cassette tapes or CDs. But those devices did not really bring freedom to listen to music easily everywhere. I can remember the days when I’d have a pile of tapes or CDs in the car so that I could listen to my favorite music while I drove. But the MP3 file format meant that I could rip all of my music into digital files and could carry my whole music collection along with me.

And the MP3 digital files were small enough that people could easily share files with friends and could send music as attachments to emails. But file-sharing of MP3 files really took off in 1999 when Shawn Fanning, John Fanning, and Sean Parker launched the peer-to-peer network Napster. This service gave people access to the entire music collections of huge numbers of others. Napster was so popular that the traffic generated by the platform crashed broadband networks at colleges and caused havoc with many ISP networks.

In 2001 Apple launched iTunes, a service where people could legally download MP3 files. Apple used the MP3 format initially but in 2003 changed to the AAC format, probably mostly to avoid paying the MP3 licensing fees. Internet traffic to iTunes grew to be gigantic. It’s hard to remember when the Internet was so much smaller, but the transfer of MP3 files was as significant to Internet traffic in the early 2000s as Netflix is today.

Napster, along with Apple iTunes, revolutionized the music industry and the two are together credited with ending the age of albums. People started listening to their favorite songs and not to entire albums – and this was a huge change for the music industry. Album sales dropped precipitously and numerous music labels went out of business. I remember the day I cancelled my subscription to Columbia House because I no longer felt the need to buy CDs.

Of course, Napster quickly ran into trouble for helping people violate music copyrights and was driven out of business. But the genie was out of the bottle and the allure of sharing MP3 files was too tempting for music lovers. I remember musician friends who always had several large-capacity external hard drives in their car and would regularly swap music collections with others.

One of the consequences from ending the licensing of the MP3 format is that over time it’s likely that computers and other devices won’t be able to read the MP3 format any longer. MP3s are still popular enough that the music players on computers and smartphones all still recognize and play MP3 files. But the history of the Internet has shown us that unsupported formats eventually fizzle away into obscurity. For example, much of the programming behind the first web sites is no longer supported and many of today’s devices can no longer view old web sites without downloading software capable of opening the old files.

It’s interesting that most people think that once something has been digitized that it will last forever. That might be true for important data if somebody makes special effort to save the digitized files in a place that will keep them safe for a long time. Bu we’ve learned that digital storage media are not permanent. Old CDs become unreadable. Hard drives eventually stop working. And even when files are somehow kept, the software needed to run the files can fall into obscurity.

There are huge amounts of music since 2000 that has been created only in a digital format. Music by famous musicians will likely be maintained and replayed as long as people have an interest in those musicians. But music by lesser-known artists will probably fade away and much of it will disappear. It’s easy to envision that in a century or two that that most of the music we listen to today might have disappeared.

Of course there are the online music streaming services like Spotify that are maintaining huge libraries of music. But if we’ve learned anything in the digital age it’s that companies that make a living peddling digital content don’t themselves have a long shelf life. So we have to wonder what happens to these large libraries when Spotify and similar companies fade away or are replaced by something else.

When Metallica Sued Napster

napster11Anybody who reads this blog knows that I am intrigued by the history of technology and I look back periodically at past events when they seem to be relevant to something happening today. This past week I saw an article that mentioned that April was the fifteenth anniversary of the lawsuit between Metallica and Napster. In retrospect, that was a very important ruling that has had implications in a lot of what we allow or don’t allow on the web today.

So let me look back at a few of the facts of that case and then discuss why this was so important. The first thing that surprised me about this is that this was only fifteen years ago. I remember the case vividly, but in my memory it was older than that and was back at the beginning of the Internet (and in many ways it does).

The case was very straightforward. If you recall, Napster was the first major peer-to-peer file-sharing service. It was very simple in operations and it allowed you to see MP3 files on other Napster users’ computers as long as you agreed to make your own files available. Napster users were then free to download any file they found in the Napster system. You could do simple searches by either song name or artist to navigate the system.

Of course, Napster put the whole music industry into a tizzy because people were using it to download millions of music files free every day. This was illegal for anybody who downloaded songs since they were violating copyrights and getting music without paying the musicians or the record companies.

The industry railed loudly against Napster, but I’m not sure they knew entirely what to do about them. While users of Napster were breaking the law, it was not quite so clear that Napster was doing anything wrong, and the industry feared a court case that might give a legal go-ahead to Napster. The industry was looking at legislative fixes to the problem.

But then along came Metallica. The band got incensed when their song ‘I Disappear’ from the Mission Impossible II soundtrack appeared on Napster before it was even officially released. The band decided to sue Napster to stop the practice and in the process became the spokespeople for the whole industry. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Metallica offered settlement alternatives to Napster, such as scrubbing their system of all copyrighted material, but this was impossible at that time (and probably still is). In the process of trying to negotiate a settlement, Napster went bankrupt paying to defend itself.

But this lawsuit sparked an ongoing and major debate about ownership rights of content versus the rights of Internet companies to make content available. While it became clear that blatant file-sharing like what Napster did is illegal, there are plenty of more nuanced fights today in the ongoing battle between artists and internet companies.

The fight moved on from Napster to Apple’s battle against Digital Rights Management (DRM), the practice of tying music recordings to a music player. From there the fight migrated to Congress with attempts to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) that were pushed by the music and movie industries to give them a leg up over internet companies.

You still see this same fight today when artists like Taylor Swift are fighting with Spotify to be justly paid for their content. You see this same battle between authors and Amazon for not properly rewarding them for their works. There is also a never ending battle between video content providers and sites like YouTube that allow people to easily upload copyrighted material.

It’s likely that the battle is going to be ongoing. Some visionaries foresee a day when micropayments are widely accepted and users can easily buy content directly from artists. But that is never going to be a perfect solution because people love the convenience of services like Spotify or Beats that put the content they like in an easy-to-use format. And as we saw with Napster, millions of people will grab copyrighted content for free if they are allowed to.