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Lost in Cyberspace

MP3: Salvation or damnation?

This article was originally published on June 23, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Anyone who thinks superstition is dead isn't paying attention to the high-tech world. Forget tea leaves and comets: All the trade magazines need to start seeing visions of doom or salvation is a new piece of technology.

The latest example of the tendency to find either the answer to human salvation or proof of our impending doom in a simple invention is the ongoing brouhaha over MPEG Audio Layer-3, or MP3, a new standard in digital sound recording.

Audiophiles – the kind of people who still have fully functional reel-to-reel tape decks – tend to see MP3 as a wonderful advance that makes high-quality sound recording that much more affordable.

The music industry, on the other hand, sees MP3 as a very definite threat to its profits, if not very existence.

So just what is this MP3?

It's a standard, like plain ASCII text, but for storing sound files – roughly similar to RealAudio or .wav files that most people are already familiar with. MP3 is an extension of the existing MPEG video standard, and also was designed by the Moving Pictures Experts Group, which is an international body charged with creating consistent methods of data compression.

What has hobbyists ecstatic and the music industry terrified is the incredible efficiency of MP3 combined with the fact that it's an open standard. Anyone can write a player or recorder for it – unlike the RealAudio standard, which is owned by one company, RealNetworks, that charges fairly steep prices for its software, keeping it in the realm of businesses (thus making it easier for the music industry to track royalties).

If not as efficient as RealAudio, music stored in MP3 format still takes up far less space than earlier methods – preserving the original CD sound quality, the file is compressed to 1/12th its original size. What would normally be a 60 megabyte .wav file to capture a five-minute pop song is now a 5 meg .mp3 file – large compared to the 800k or so for RealAudio, but still manageable over the Internet, even on a 28.8kbps modem.

It all sounds exciting, but what you want are details – and a few sound samples wouldn't hurt, either. The place to head is the MP3 page set up by From here, you'll find anything your music-happy little heart could desire: Frequently Asked Questions, music samples, free or shareware MP3 players you can download (so you can listen to the samples), technical specifications, Usenet newsgroups dedicated to MP3 (a half-dozen at last count), source code and MP3 search engines to help you find MP3 music files on the Web.

Another good site has the predictable name of This site is a bit more political than the above, with some spirited attacks on the recording industry's attempts to have copyright law expanded and to extract royalty payments from commercial Web sites that provide music.

Which brings up the music industry's concerns: Anyone with a CD drive (or even a standard stereo and sound card with RCA jacks) can now record her/his favorite songs off their albums into MP3 format and post them on the Web – a new twist on the old pirating scheme. While it's relatively easy for publishers and musicians to keep track of what is being played on radio stations and in dance clubs, it's obviously a bit trickier trying to get one's royalties from the millions of Web sites that could potentially offer MP3-formatted music (or that are already providing audio feeds in RealAudio, QuickTime or other existing formats).

To get a fair idea of the music industry's side, check out the Web site of the Recording Industry Association of America. There didn't seem to be anything specifically tied to MP3, but there was plenty on Internet piracy in general under the "Industry Issues" and "Press" sections of their Web site.

Finally, a good site to get a feel for where the whole issue of digital reproduction of music is headed (because the only certainty in all this is that MP3 won't be the last word in technology – next year, or the year after, someone will come up with an even more efficient way of recording music) is on the Distributing Music Over the Internet page by Brad Kimmel. This page is apparently a class assignment for the Ethics and the Internet course at Duke University (which has it's own page worth checking out.

Kimmel's site provides the clearest, most common-sense explanations of both the technology and the legal issues involved. It's a bit dry, as one would expect of an academic paper, but he lays it all out for the reader with a minimum of conjecture or editorializing – or prophesying, for that matter.

Would that the trade press was so insightful and concise.