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Vorbis: Freedom From MP3 Royalties?

The open source streaming media movement received a big boost last week when a group of iCAST developers released a beta version of Vorbis, an open source audio compression format that they believe could change the cost structure of music distribution. MP3 is the de facto standard for downloadable music, but some believe Vorbis has the potential to supplant MP3s because it is a completely free, open source solution.

"The hope is that, at some point, another technology emerges as the de facto standard to replace [MP3]. I think it could be Vorbis," said Steve Grady, vice president of marketing at Emusic.com, an online source for downloadable music based in Redwood City, Calif.. "I think an open source project is a very likely successor because people are going to like the terms," he added.

While the licensing fees associated with MP3s have hardly been onerous, the technology is not, after all, free. Jack Moffit, vice president oftechnology at iCAST in San Francisco and the lead developer, believes the use of Vorbis could significantly lower the cost of online musicdistribution, and help remove the financial barriers to entry. Hardware manufacturers, who pay higher MP3 licensing fees than distributors, would also benefit from an open source solution. Electronic music distributors pay 1 percent of the price charged to the listener, or at least one cent per download, as well as a $15,000 annual fee to patent holder The Fraunhofer Gesellschaft in Germany. Hardware manufacturers pay 50 cents per unit, plus $15,000 per year, according to www.mp3licensing.com.

"If Vorbis is adopted by hardware manufacturers it could accelerate thegrowth and could bring down the cost of portable MP3 players," said Grady.

Before that can happen, more work needs to be done to improve the soundquality and fix some bugs in Vorbis, said Moffitt. He hopes that the beta release will encourage other developers to work on those issues. "We've done almost all the work and people are free to use it," he said. "It would take most companies about a day to integrate Vorbis into [their] products."

Growing Support

Vorbis works with the Winamp and Sonique music players, and the beta release has garnered early support from Napster, Etrantrum, Panic, XMMS and EMusic. Moffitt said he is currently talking to hardware manufacturers about incorporating Vorbis support into their players, and he is also working on finding a home for Vorbis in RealPlayer and Windows Media Player.

Vorbis may have some success gaining support in RealPlayer since RealNetworks of Seattle has been emphatic about supporting nearly all formats, said Malcolm Maclachlan, media e-commerce analyst with research firm IDC in Mountain View, Calif.. "If Real will support it there could be a future [for Vorbis]," he said.

RealNetworks spokesperson Erika Shaffer said that when the final version is released the company will evaluate Vorbis to determine if it can be supported by RealPlayer or RealJukebox.

Piracy Concerns

The Recording Industry Association of America in Washington, D.C., is currently evaluating Vorbis to see if there are any possible piracy orcopyright issues with it, said spokesperson Amy Weiss.

The music industry will always have some concerns over a format that doesn't require security or encryption, Grady pointed out. But Moffitt hopes to allay those fears. "Vorbis is what you make it. If you want to put rights management in, go ahead. You don't have to ask permission to add on to it," he said.

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