The mp3 file format is not free. Manufacturers of software that can create mp3 files pay a royalty to Thomson and Fraunhofer, the companies that license and own the patents behind mp3 digital music technology.
But Thomson and Fraunhofer are feeling left out of the money generated by the new pay-per-song services. The current mp3 file format does not support any restrictions on copying or using the music files, so Apple, MusicMatch, the new Napster and the rest all use other technologies – primarily Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio.
It’s no surprise, then, that Thomson and Fraunhofer are working on a makeover of the mp3 format to add on digital rights management. Songs in mp3 format could then have various restrictions placed on their use – perhaps they could only be played on a single computer, or only on certain portable devices, or perhaps they could only be transferred to a CD once. Downloading files would be more chancy if the restricted mp3s were also named “.mp3” instead of some new file extension, because it would be impossible to tell if the files would play when they reached your computer. The recording industry presumably loves that possibility – they adore anything that increases consumer confusion and frustration with downloading.