Why I ditched MP3 and sold my iPod

Ok, it might look like I have some sort of vendetta against Apple these days. Maybe I do. More realistically, though, is that I've been studying the limitations in things like corporate control of "standards", patents, licenses, and royalties, and thinking about how all of this affects the way I work and live today, as well as in 20 years from today.

Let's start with compressed music formats. I'd been mulling the idea of converting my entire music library - somewhere in the 120gb range, spread across multiple devices and computers - into OGG format. Evidently, I only regularly listen to about 2% of that over the span of any given month. Almost all of it is in MP3 format right now, with the occasional AAC, WMA file tossed in. Also, I make a point to only download the OGG version of a podcast (though I listen to precious few podcasts) when it's available.

Is OGG "better" than MP3? I'm not going to touch that one with a 10-foot pole. Although I consider myself an "audiophile" and "videophile" - meaning I can (annoyingly) hear / see the difference between compression rates or between "normal" and "upscaled" DVDs for it to bother me - all of the audio codecs I've used have proven to be quite good (well, good enough for me anyways) in terms of sound reproduction when used to encode at higher bitrates. And if you objectively read through some of the myriad comparisons of "mp3 vs ogg vs aac vs wma vs..." on the web, you'll find that they stack up more or less equally to each other, with the loudest differences being heard from the fanboys of each format1

It comes back down to philosophy. Contrary to what many people believe, mp3 is not free. It's licensed and patented, and these patents are actively enforced.

Thomson Consumer Electronics controls licensing of the MPEG-1/2 Layer 3 patents in many countries, including the United States, Japan, Canada and EU countries. Thomson has been actively enforcing these patents. Thomson has been granted software patents in EU countries and by the European Patent Office, but it is unclear whether they would be enforced by courts there.

In September 1998, the Fraunhofer Institute sent a letter to several developers of MP3 software stating that a license was required to "distribute and/or sell decoders and/or encoders". The letter claimed that unlicensed products "infringe the patent rights of Fraunhofer and THOMSON. To make, sell and/or distribute products using the [MPEG Layer-3] standard and thus our patents, you need to obtain a license under these patents from us."

These patent issues significantly slowed the development of unlicensed MP3 software and led to increased focus on creating and popularizing alternatives such as WMA and Ogg Vorbis. Microsoft, the makers of the Windows operating system, chose to move away from MP3 to their own proprietary Windows Media formats to avoid the licensing issues associated with the patents. Until the key patents expire, unlicensed encoders and players appear to be illegal in countries that recognize those patents.2

Now, lots of people I know couldn't care less about this. Not being "lots of people I know", however, I'm more than slightly concerned about such an important and widespread digital technology being firmly controlled and manipulated by a single entity. Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of open source, I have a choice. I've always maintained that true freedom lies in the ability to make one's own choices... though that's slightly outside of the scope of this post.

The Ogg Vorbis specification is in the public domain. It is completely free for commercial or noncommercial use. That means that commercial developers may independently write Ogg Vorbis software which is compatible with the specification for no charge and without restrictions of any kind.3

What does that mean, directly, to me? That means that I'm free to convert my audio from any source into this format, without having to pay royalties for doing do. When you buy any mp3-capable device, portable or otherwise, rest assured that any licensing costs paid by the manufacturer are passed on to you, dear customer. It's one of the obvious reasons why portable audio players have evolved so little in the past 4 years (I'd love someone to explain to me the functional difference between a 2nd-gen ipod and today's ipod... asides from fashion, of course).

Despite this, we all keep flocking to Apple and their iPod. It's the cool thing to do. It's fashionable, it's got a decent (but not the greatest) interface for navigating your music library, and hey, everybody else has one, so why not?

Well, for one, I don't like it anymore because it's an iPod. It's really as simple as that. I don't want to be "different" or "unique", but I also don't feel a need to assimilate into a sub-culture permanently immersed in their make-believe musical world on the bus, subway, waiting in line, etc. I have a profound love for music. I listen to workout, to focus when I'm working or studying, and whenever I go out or drive. But not all the time. And no longer thanks to companies like Apple or Thomson that want to control the strings to my music collection.

Will I buy another portable audio player? Probably, but not right now. There are tons of cheaper, better music players that support the OGG format4. Maybe I'll wait for my birthday next month, and see if anyone catches on... :p

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Thursday, November 30th, 2006
vieux bandit's picture

LOL - I haven't had a portable music player (exclusing the car, I guess!) since my last... cassette-tape walkman (which was the second one I ever owned)! We do have a diskman in the house, because a friend gave it to us rather than to charity, but I think it's broken now. I'm soooo not a good consumer!

Fascinating reflexion - thanks. I love how you manage to point out things that I had never even thought of thinking about.

Friday, December 1st, 2006
stevenmansour's picture

Actually, I think that makes you a great consumer.

The less stuff we buy, the better. I have to buy "tools" to help me in what I do - computer, camera, etc. - but other than that, I don't really "need" anything. I'm very aware that a portable mp3 player is a luxury item, but if listening to music helps me focus when I'm working, then I could call it a tool as well.

Friday, December 1st, 2006
oso's picture

I've never really worried about audio formats because there are so many programs that convert from one to the other. So I've never really felt stuck. I figure if I can convert my songs to OGG now, why not do it later? Procrastination is the one quality I've always been consistent at.

Friday, December 1st, 2006
stevenmansour's picture

Because eventually, you may not be allowed to do it at all. DRM "solutions" to limit our fair-use applications of the media *we* buy are getting more and more widespread.12

It's already getting harder and harder to make fair-use copies of all kinds of media (the most notorious example is PC gaming3), although hackers have (so far) been good enough to stay one step ahead.

When such a powerful industry (MPAA, RIAA) sees a new technology as a threat instead of an oppurtunity, they'll keep on trying to make it harder and harder for us to adapt to it. Although unlikely, there's the chance that it could eventually become illegal to convert your mp3s to ogg vorbis.

Saturday, December 2nd, 2006
élizita's picture

dido on Vieux Bandit's comment!

 You made me think about stuff I had not thought of thinking about... on a number of occasions, which is why I enjoy and really look forward to most of your posts. I, like you, listen to a good number of music, while working, in order to better concentrate and render those messages from one language to the other... Music is that universal territory where I find language is not an barrier but rather a vehicule... not understanding all the lyrics can sometimes make you better understand the meaning of the message... (I feel some unconscious communication level is carried though notes, intonation and beat.)

Like VB again I do not own any portable device, I am still very old fashion in that I use my computer almost as a typewritter and encyclopedia... no games, videos, downloading tools nor music freeware. Again, some bits because I am not so software litterate and because I still believe in the art an artist shares and usually (in 90% of cases succeed) try to buy the original work rather than copies. I feel good at thinking that I pay my respect to the author, I am also very aware that 99,9% of the sale and benefice goes to a machine that took that art and made it into a product... but as long as I know the artist behind get a little something that enables him or her a little bit towards the next month and next project... I am happy.

In order to try and help an artist even more, I usually try to buy new artist CDs straight from them. Sometimes it is not possible, some artists I do not know personnaly and have no geographical solutions to getting it any other way than trough a store that imports it through a provider that pays taxes, rent, employees, accounts and sorts... so in the end much more people get a little tiny bitsy piece of my contribution to making an artist someone who actually gets paid for his job ... creating...

I cannot relate all that much to all the techno and various formats you mention as I know little. But I do use media player, which made local copies from which I created selections. Nevertheless, thanks to your explanation I can understand your vision and issue about not being able to 'choose' what we chose! THAT I agree is an infringement on our freedom. But there again, I would not know how else to solve.... guess I would go along with your solution.... the most open source and rather politically free offer there is.

My only concern about all that free sharing, format fitting and royalty pursuying is that sometimes we loose track of who the first ones to share were.... authors and musicians are human beings like you and me... and very few GOOD artists can have the luxury of that choice... spend their life creating... in order to share and survive and pass it forward. They usually have done the first and most difficult transformation of feelings into notes and lyrics... which in turn is recorded...

Hence, I have not made the move towards getting that .tool. and do not think to do so anytime soon. Well, not before the new laptop and camera that would allow me to share with more people the art that I have such pleasure and feel so priviledged about receiving from our fellow poets. Now there would lie my dilemma and the question why I need to read more about Stevo's issue...

If podcasts are audio files to be shared and if my files are MP3.... would someone ask for royalties eventually or decide they are illegal? If I understand correctly and you seem to point that more people are going to be shifting to OGG, should I also make files available in both formats?

Finally, I have been asking myself this question: Since the authors (and many musicians) voluntarily offer and agree to be promoted free of charge on the web.... how far can one go without actually stepping in one someone else's freedom? How much sharing can one do without 'ethically' hurting the authors rights? and lastly...are podcasts safe from all that war?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007
lil my scrappy's picture

HI! I just wanted to tell you that i really liked your site and you did a great job with it. Just for your note http://billboardmp3.org/ has great music there.

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