Helping out This American Life—with an Ogg copy of the show
To the team of This American Life,
I'm writing to you on behalf of the Free Software Foundation. We're a nonprofit organization founded in 1985 to advocate for everyone's right to share and change the software that they use. Software patents can make it impractical or even impossible to write certain kinds of software, so campaigning for their abolition has been an important part of our work.
When we first heard that you were airing an episode about software patents, “When Patents Attack!”, we were really excited. That excitement was justified; the show's investigation into the history of Intellectual Ventures' patents provide a compelling narrative that makes these issues broadly accessible.
The only thing that disappointed us wasn't in the show itself, but the way it's distributed and streamed online: as an MP3 file. Even though it's a ubiquitous file format, many companies claim to hold patents that are essential to any software that plays or creates MP3 files. It has been at the center of several patent disputes, including a high-profile case Lucent Technologies won against Microsoft in 2007. All this means that This American Life itself faces many of the same risks as the software developers profiled in the episode. Without warning, patent holders could demand outrageous compensation, or else threaten to shut down all of the show's digital distribution.
Fortunately, there's a ready alternative to the MP3 format that avoids those risks. It's called Ogg Vorbis. Ogg Vorbis files are about the same size as equivalent MP3 files, and provide competitive audio quality. Under the hood, Ogg Vorbis uses encoding and decoding techniques that avoid commonly known patented methods. All this means Ogg Vorbis makes it possible to avoid MP3's legal risks without sacrificing quality.
We'd love to see This American Life made available in Ogg Vorbis format. Both the show and its listeners would benefit from sidestepping the patent minefield that surrounds the MP3 format the show currently uses, for all the reasons you outlined in “When Patents Attack!” Making Ogg Vorbis files directly from the original audio would provide best results, but converting MP3 files to Ogg Vorbis is very simple. We've published general instructions about the process at http://libreplanet.org/wiki/Group:PlayOgg/Convert_MP3_to_Ogg. We've even prepared an Ogg Vorbis version of “When Patents Attack!” so that you can compare the results yourself, or distribute this copy hassle-free. Since you don't accept email attachments, you can download it privately from us.... (We're not making this file available to anyone else.)
We hope you'll make “When Patents Attack!”, and every episode of This American Life, available in Ogg Vorbis format. Nobody should have to worry about the kinds of patent threats you shared on the show—not you, and not your listeners. Unfortunately, anybody dealing with MP3 files could find a patent holder knocking on their door tomorrow. The Ogg Vorbis format offers all the same functionality with none of that risk. Making the switch would be a great move for everyone's safety.
License Compliance Engineer
Free Software Foundation
Update: We're now running a petition asking This American Life to use Ogg Vorbis. Sign today and make your voice heard—we plan to deliver the first batch of signatures on September 7.