New format may help keep digital audio market open

August 08, 2002|By Mike Himowitz

IT'S HARD to get excited over a headline that reads, "Xiph.org Releases Ogg Vorbis." In fact, you might suspect that whoever typed it had one hand on the wrong row of the keyboard.

But if you've ever played a digital music file on your computer, Ogg Vorbis is big news.

Technically, it's the name of a new format for storing and transmitting digital audio. If you troll the Internet looking for music, you'll soon find files with the extension OGG, in addition to the familiar MP3 and WMA formats. You'll also need a new program to play OGG files - or an updated version of the player you already use.

Great, you say. Just what we need, another file format.

But Ogg Vorbis does have one long-term advantage over the others: nobody owns it - or wants to. It's an "open source" project by a group of programmers and music buffs known as the Xiph .org Foundation.

The name sounds funny, but the group has a serious purpose: "Protecting the foundations of Internet multimedia from control by private interests."

To understand why this is important, it helps to know something about digital music, intellectual property and the clash between big business and the old-time community of programmers who believe good software ought to be free.

The music we play today is the result of 30 years of work by scientists who learned how to capture sound waves as a series of digital ones and zeros. Their work first bore fruit in the late 1970s with the arrival of the compact disc.

Unfortunately, CD technology required a lot of ones and zeros to record music accurately - almost 9 megabytes of information per minute of audio. That was fine for storing music on a CD - a single disc could hold 74 minutes' worth. But it was far too much data to store on PC hard drives or transmit across a network.

So the next step was "compressing" the data - reducing the number of ones and zeros without seriously affecting sound quality. Eventually engineers learned to eliminate data containing sounds our brains don't really register and drastically reduced the size of digital audio.

The most popular compression scheme of this type is known as MPEG-1 Level 3, or MP3 for short. Using MP3 software, CD audio can be squished into one megabyte per minute, or 3 megabytes for an average album track. That's small enough to be stored on PC hard drives or transferred easily over the Internet.

And that's what tens of millions are doing today - trading MP3 music files on the Net. Most of these transfers are illegal, but the mere act of "ripping" tunes from an audio CD into MP3 files on your computer is perfectly OK for personal use. The same goes for transferring those tunes to a digital audio player or "burning" them back onto a custom CD.

Now the mathematical algorithms and software that perform this compression fall under the category of "intellectual property," which can be patented or copyrighted.

Inventors typically make money by licensing the right to use their intellectual property in exchange for royalties. But in the digital age, it's not unusual for a company that holds a patent to sit on the sidelines and wait until its technology is widely adopted - often by people who have no idea there's a patent involved. Then it starts demanding money.

That's what happened with the MP3 format, the underlying patents of which are owned by the Fraunhofer Institute of Germany and by Thomson Multimedia, a French techology giant.

Once MP3 became established, Fraunhofer increasingly began demanding royalties from the publishers of the software that creates and plays MP3 files.

That forced a number of "freeware" programmers to take the programs off their Web sites. And while most of us think MP3 players are free because we can download them over the Internet, often the publisher is paying royalties, whether or not he charges us directly.

What about the competition? The next-most common type of file compression is called Windows Media Audio (WMA), which Microsoft owns and has made the default format on its Windows Media Player. Although Microsoft claims to deliver the same sound quality as MP3 music at higher compression levels, WMA has not been as popular as MP3 with users, largely because it's designed to make copy protection easier.

Even so, when you get down to it, two companies control the technology we use to play and record music on our PCs.

Why is this so bad? Consider what happened on a related front last month, when an obscure Texas company called Forgent Networks announced that it owns the patents underlying the JPEG technology that virtually everyone uses to compress, transmit and store digital photos. The company suggested that it might start charging royalty fees, which could cost the industry (and ultimately users) millions or force a wrenching change to a new technology. Will it win in court? Who knows.

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