LAME Legal Issues

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LAME patent issues

Prior to April 2017, this is what we believed about LAME and patents:

While the LAME source code is free, the encoding technology that ready-compiled LAME binaries use is patented. The patents are held by Fraunhofer and administered by Thomson. Patenting raises a theoretical possibility that in some countries a user might need to pay a license fee to legally encode MP3s. This might vary according to the purpose of the encoding and whether the software being used is licensed.

There is no definitive list of countries where the patents unambiguously hold sway. However they are generally assumed to be enforceable in USA, Canada, the EEC and Japan. This means that in these countries (in theory), software that encodes MP3s must be licensed by the patent holders, and that anyone encoding MP3s with unlicensed encoders may also be infringing patents.

The best advice that can be given is that the user makes their own decision, based on their conscience, the country they are in, and taking into account the following:

  • The patent holders have tended to enforce license fees against commercial rather than free MP3 encoders
  • Thomson themselves have said that no license is needed by individuals creating music libraries of MP3 files for personal use (interpretations vary whether that sanctions using unlicensed encoders, free or otherwise)
  • Existing MP3 patents will expire worldwide between 2010 and 2012 (but not until 2017 in the USA)
  • The possibility remains at least in the USA that patents could be extended.

Our current understanding is that:

  • The Fraunhofer patents have expired as of April 2017
  • Fraunhofer has said the licensing of their patents is no longer needed:
“On April 23, 2017, Technicolor's mp3 licensing program for certain mp3 related patents and software of Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS has been terminated.” 
  • LAME has stated that MP3 is now free of all patents
“By April 23rd, 2017 all relevant software patents applying to MP3 compression technology had expired. MP3 is now considered to be a patent-free format, and licenses are not being collected anymore. Anyone is free to implement the specification and distribute the implementation.” 

But we are not lawyers, and at the moment we are still being cautious. We would like to provide LAME with Audacity, but have not yet made the decision to do so.