Microsoft says it was doing the right thing: paying a German rights holder $16 million to license the MP3 audio format, the foundation of the digital music boom. Then an American jury ruled that Microsoft had failed to pay another MP3 patent holder, and slapped it with a $1.52 billion judgment.
But the MP3 toll gates do not end there.
The confusion stems from the number of companies and institutions — including Thomson, Royal Philips Electronics and AT&T (through Bell Labs, now part of Alcatel-Lucent) — that worked to create the MP3 standard almost two decades ago. The patent claims of those and others are increasingly being backed up by aggressive enforcement efforts, including lawsuits and even seizures of music players by customs authorities.
This situation is a mess but the story completely biffs it by failing to mention that there’s a free alternative to MP3. The fact that only twelve people use it is beside the point — It’s as if the reporter did a story on a mass-suicide without asking why all the nice people killed themselves.
The situation with MP3 patents is a very interesting counterpoint to the way that Microsoft has attempted to taint open-source over the years. In the past Microsoft argued (speciously) that there was huge risk for businesses that permitted to let open source anything come within 100 miles of their code base. Now we find that the real threat is not open source but software patents, and, ironically, the biggest victim may be Microsoft itself.