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Patent licensing on MP3 format expires, Apple-preferred AAC now a 'de facto standard'

The Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits has officially halted its licensing program for "certain MP3 related patents and software," effectively making the long-standing music format free to use for developers.




More advanced codecs like AAC are beginning to supplant MP3, Fraunhofer director Bernhard Grill told NPR. Grill in fact claimed that AAC has become the "de facto standard for music download and videos on mobile phones," as it's "more efficient" than MP3 and includes "a lot more functionality."

Although MP3's development dates back to the late 1980s, it only became popular a decade later with the advent of filesharing services like Napster and jukebox software to play it with. Apple accelerated this even further with the release of the iPod and iTunes in 2001, helping to standardize its use.

For years however Apple has sold songs and albums in AAC, and used it as a default sound format for videos, particularly on iPhones, iPads, and more recent iPods. When syncing iTunes with iOS devices, users have an option to automatically convert music to compressed AAC to save space.

The move to AAC as a preferred platform wasn't without self-interest. When launched, Apple used digital rights management embedded in the protocol to appease the recording industry.

Fraunhofer noted that MP3 is still the world's most widely-used audio codec. This is presumably because of its legacy and widespread compatibility, since virtually every device designed to play digital music uses MP3 as a foundation.

The format could gradually fade away as lossless alternatives like FLAC become more practical with increased bandwidth and storage. Apple in fact has its own lossless format in ALAC, but doesn't use it on Apple Music or the iTunes Store.