Should We Fight for Ogg Vorbis?

I'm a big fan of Richard Stallman and his work – even though, the first time I interviewed him, he proceeded to criticise my questions before answering them, not a journalistic experience I'd had before. Without his vision and sheer bloody-mindedness in the face of indifference and outright hostility, we would not have the vast array of free software we enjoy today.

More recently, he has built on his growing success in creating a flourishing free software ecosystem by moving on to address important related issues. These include fighting DRM (“Digital Restrictions Management” as Stallman likes to call it) through the DefectiveByDesign campaign, and battling against Microsoft Vista with the BadVista initiative.

I think that's good news: DRM is emerging as one of the last major obstacles to the wider use of free software, and Microsoft's Vista represents a significant bolstering of the DRM approach – to the point that Vista has been memorably described as a “DRM infection masquerading as an OS”. But there is another campaign that the Free Software Foundation has recently launched that I am less sure about. It's called PlayOgg:

Though the MP3 format has become very common, any time a distributor sells or gives away music encoded as an MP3, they are responsible for paying a fee to the owners of the MP3 patents. These patents are also an issue for developers writing software to work with MP3s. In contrast, the specification for Ogg Vorbis is in the public domain, so anyone can use the format or write software to use it without being dependent on a patent holder for permission.

One thing I should state immediately is that I think that Ogg Vorbis is great: it's cool technology doing all the right things in the right way. So my doubts about this campaign have nothing to do with any weaknesses in Ogg. It's just that I wonder whether this is really something the free software world should be expending much energy on when there are other more pressing problems. Whereas DRM and software patents, for example, are manifestly and unequivocally bad for free software (and indeed for everyone), that doesn't seem to be true for the MP3 format.

Some might argue that the MP3 technology is inferior to Ogg Vorbis; perhaps, but it's clearly good enough for the vast majority of users. The difference in sound quality, such as it is, seems unlikely to be sufficient to encourage many people to switch to Ogg.

More serious is the issue of patents. This whole area is certainly a mess, but the good news is that the MP3 patents run out pretty soon – maybe even in 2011. If the PlayOgg campaign had started several years ago, I would be more sympathetic: given that the problem will go away in the near future anyway, it seems rather late in the day to start worrying about it, not least because it will take some time for the campaign to gain any momentum.

The final reason why the PlayOgg effort is not really necessary is that in the LGPL'd LAME code we have what many regard as the best MP3 encoder in the business, and one that seems to be tolerated by the patent holders. So provided the latter don't go bonkers and sue everything in sight during the last years of their patents (admittedly, always a possibility), it's not even the case that the use of patented technology is locking out users of free software.

By all means use and improve Ogg; by all means seek better support for it from the manufacturers of music players and from digital music retailers. But let's not lose sight of the real threats facing free software - software patents and DRM – or get too distracted from the long and hard struggle that will be needed to defeat them.

Glyn Moody writes about openness at opendotdotdot.

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Freedom Everywhere

I have wittnessed this perspective often - but not only from the free software people:
* Free software people advocate patented technology and non-free content.
* Anti patent people advocate non-free software and non-free content.
* And open content people advocate non-free software and patented technology.

To look at all the stuff only from your own eyes is extremely dumb. We expect other groups to rather use free software but we dont want to stand by them . And this you find everywhere. And that is the exact reason why companies like Sony, Microsoft, Apple or Thompson hold us all still in prison. We dont want to be free. We only want freedom for ourselves and our own universe - everything outside is not our core interest and we even think that non-free content, non-free software or patented technology is superior.

Yes: Suporting free media formats does not help free software - but free software also does not help free media formats. But together it would be extremley powerful - but it isn't. Please think more in networks and less in "my group" their group"....

Cutting off my nose to spite my face (and save my soul)

Although the editors of Linux Journal are infallible in matters of doctrine, there are other beliefs, still flourishing outside the walls of the Cathedral. Out here, we, the agnostic, often make decisions based solely on the advice of that nagging little voice (and the advice is ever the same): "You know the right thing to do." Does that mean I have to join the ranks of the digital Amish, eschewing the convenience of some patent-laden technology in favour of a free and open source alternative? Alas, yes, sometimes it does mean that...

And remember, sometimes the Amish are right. Their wagons are not are not filling the coffers of giant, multinational oil companies, nor are they choking the planet.


We should not forget: 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.

predictions, predictions

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the pertinent patents will run out in 2011.

What happens when Fraunhofer et al. lobby the EU in 2010 with big Euro notes to get the standard patent lifetime extended to 100 years, and then get that extension applied retroactively to their patents on the MP3 codecs?

If you think that won't happen, look at what Disney has done with the Mickey Mouse copyright, at what Sonny Bono did with media copyrights and trademarks, and what the US PTO did with software patents.

For this reason alone, we need to strengthen the market presence of Ogg Vorbis/Theora. They will be protected, open, and DRM-free, no matter how many new formats come along, and no matter how much the technologists litigate against the DRM crackers.

vorbis = almost as awesome as I am

OGG/Vorbis should be supported and used for the exact same reason that any decent media format should be used: it provides quality media in a meaningful way.

OGG/Vorbis should be supported and used for one very significant additional reason: it's free for you, it's free for me.

It really is that simple. I recently bought an iAudio "mp3 player" (by Cowon Audio) that plays Ogg as well. It also mounts as a standard USB storage device and therefore is completely linux-friendly. It will play any semi-sane format you throw onto it.

I don't like to be coined as a zealot, but the more hardware and software I become exposed to the longer my shit list gets. I praise those willing to bust ass to provide free (not in price but in unrestricted usage when it comes to hardware) quality alternatives to horseshit semi-adequate formats and hardware.

In a word YES! The problem

In a word YES! The problem in adoption seems to be a lack of supported hardware. I have ripped all of my music to ogg vorbis and even went out and bought my iAudio G3 specifically because it supports ogg. It wasn't easy to find one that did. I'm less than impressed with Rockbox on my iPod and wish it had native support from apple.

MP3 has been "good enough"

MP3 has been "good enough" for most people because they never knew of any alternatives, and there weren't any at the time. Many people are still oblivious to this and it's going to be an uphill battle. I recently read that Amazon was going to have an online music store selling 100% DRM free music so I thought what the hell, let me give them some input. I emailed Amazon asking them to consider offering music in Ogg Theora format instead of just MP3 because it as "free" as in free from patents and licensing (I made sure to point out the distinction that I was referring to free in terms of freedom, not price / cost). The moron who responded basically copied and pasted from some reference manual telling me they already offer free MP3 downloads for a couple of songs and sent me a link. I still think it's worth fighting for as another user mentioned, regardless of whether or not the patents run out because it's also a philosophical thing. But it won't happen until more devices (especially the iPod) support OGG.

The problem with LAME is not

The problem with LAME is not that it's not really good; it's that basically no Linux distros can ship it, which means that Jo Punter moves to Linux and finds that, out of the box, her huge music collection won't play. That's a kick in the teeth if you're just trying something out.

Not LAME, but libmad0!

It's not LAME that is "tolerated", but MAD! (libmad0)

Debian ships with libmad0 (I don't know how they can afford it). And Slackware comes with libmad too.
Another issue: how comes nobody remembers of "MP3PRO", a "super-format" patented by Thomson? It was really offering a better quality than MP3 for the same size, but you need a special decoder (not free of charge).


But I can't believe that the community can't come up with a way round this in terms of "click here" kind of stuff that automatically downloads LAME for them....

Work Arounds

That's exactly what Ubuntu does. But it is illegal for me to use MP3 software, either encoder or decoder, in the United States, without a patent license. It's also illegal to distribute MP3 encoders in the United States or decoders without a patent license.

As far as I am aware the primary motivation for Vorbis was legal.

According to the Wikipedia entry for MP3, which appears well referenced, Fraunhofer made a 100 million euros on MP3 patent licenses in 2005.

Are you advocating that US citizens break the law and that distros should assist them to break the law? In that case, why even mess with this Linux stuff -- you can just use a pirated copy of Windows for free ;)


> Are you advocating that US citizens break the law and that distros
> should assist them to break the law?


> In that case, why even mess with this Linux stuff -- you can just use a
> pirated copy of Windows for free ;)

The concepts don't seem to be related. Pirating Windows means that
I am (1) doing evil and (2) using inferior software. Violating an evil
law is a good thing to do -- indeed, is morally obligatory -- and using
Linux means that I enjoy improved usability, functionality, and productivity.


LAME is a very good implementation of MP3 encoder. But LAME cannot circumvent problems in the MP3 standard.

To get an idea, take a wav file ripped from your favorite music track and encode it using LAME, faac (a Free AAC encoder) and Ogg at 32 kbps and see for yourself.



hm, the result wasn't that bad. thank you

MP3 good enough?

Certainly; but my point is that the success of MP3 shows that maybe it's good enough for most people. Which means that LAME is also good enough for most. Choice is always good, which is another reason why it's great to have Ogg Vorbis too.

"Good enough"?

I can agree that there are significant issues that need to (continue to) be addressed and battles that need to (continue to) be fought by the Free Software movement, and that their relative priorities can be debated and valued differently among different people.

Personally, I see the Ogg Vorbis fight as one of many battles in the software patent war. As such, I really do believe it's worth fighting, regardless of when the MP3 patents expire. The fight against software patents is not simply a legal one; it can also been seen as a conceptual and philosophical fight. Because of this, the popularity of MP3 increases the significance of this particular battle in my mind.

MP3 has certainly been successful, so maybe it is indeed "good enough for most people". But is success and adoption in that sense really a valid metric of what is "good" for most people? Windows has been enormously successful in that sense as well.

MP3 Patents


I think MP3 patents are not going to run out by 2011. There are not one or two but several patents on audio coding. They are not specifically targetted at MP3. The newer codecs from ISO, like AAC also use those patents and they continue to come out. AAC added a new section called Spectral Band Replication about 3 years back or so and it has several patents by a company called Coding technologies in Sweden.

So, let us first digest that it is definitely not a war against MP3. MP3 happens to be the most popular. There are many such codecs.

To get a glimpse of Audio Coding patents, go thru these, adding 20 to their issue dates are not giving me 2011.

5. ...
6. ...



It looks like you need to be a patent lawyer to figure out whether or not the mp3 file format is going to move into the public domain in the next five years or so. So campaigning for license-free ogg vorbis sounds like a good idea to me.

If nothing else, it'll educate the public about the existence of the ogg vorbis file format. A case in point. Recently I was in one of the "The Source by Circuit City" stores (the folks who've taken over Radio Shack's outlets in Canada).

I saw an iRiver player on sale at a very good price. I knew that there were some iRiver players that supported ogg vorbis and some that didn't. Couldn't remember which was which.

So I asked the clerk in the store whether this particular model was one of the ones that supported ogg vorbis. To which he replied "What's ogg vorbis?" So I ended up having to educate the guy as I often have to do in "electronic toy stores". Afterwhich he snottily replied "well nobody would know that!"

I've since discovered that it doesn't support ogg (it was an H10) and Rockbox doesn't work very well on that particular I took a pass! Right now I'm sticking to my little Samsung Yepp which does support ogg and allows me to listen to Linux podcasts on the daily commute.

I think its a myth that the general public is using certain software because they find it "good enough". They use these things because they don't know of alternatives. I've illustrated the problem with ogg vorbis but it's exactly the same with Linux over Windows, Open Office over Microsoft Office, Thunderbird over Outlook Express and believe it or not Firefox over I.E.