August 29, 2002

Thomson Multimedia says 'MP3 has never been free'

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Dave Arland, a U.S. spokesman for Thomson Multimedia, says that MP3 licensing terms have not changed in seven years, and that as far as he knows there are no plans to change them in the future. According to Arland, the Slashdot poster who claimed Thomson's license structure changed recently "was apparently misinformed."
The controversy was created by the removal of this line in the old MP3 royalty licensing page (courtesy of Internet Wayback Machine) from the current version: "No license fee is expected for desktop software mp3 decoders/players that are distributed free-of-charge via the Internet for personal use of end-users."

But the lack of these few words on the latest version of the MP3 licensing Web site does not represent a change in Thomson's policy.

Arland says Ogg Vorbis is apparently using this small Web site wording change "to get publicity," and that if Ogg Vorbis or anyone else wants to produce multimedia encoders and players and give them away, that's fine with Thomson. But he said Thomson does not do that and never has; that its policy has always been to allow free use of the company's MP3 patents in "freely distributable software" while charging royalties to all commercial software or hardware makers that use Thomson's MP3 technology.

Because the GPL (General Public License) allows all software licensed under it to be sold, this may mean that "freely distributable" MP3 players cannot be licensed under the GPL. Arland says he is not familiar with the GPL; that Thomson laid down its licensing terms long ago, and that if Thomson's terms are not compatible with the GPL today, then they never were.

Arland says Thomson not only allows but encourages the use of MP3 technology in free client-side players. He also says Thomson has no plans to start charging royalties to producers of freely-distributed MP3 player software, and that "it would not be in our best interests to do so." But, he says several times -- using slightly different words each time -- the second you sell software or hardware that contains Thomson's patented technology, the company wants money, and this is not negotiable, GPL or no GPL.

Thomson makes its money on MP3 from licensing both commercially-distributed MP3 players and encoding software. "We have hundreds and hundreds of companies that have taken out licenses with us," Arland says.

And, as far as people who thought MP3 was free (in the GPL sense) or should be free, Arland says, "We developed the technology in partnership with Fraunhofer. We license the technology. It is not free. It has never been free. We're not going to give it away. That's the way it is."

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