Public Broadcasting: Move to Free Audio Formats!

The Free Software Foundation has launched a campaign to get the Boston public radio station, WBUR, to provide an audio stream of its transmissions using a free software application, Ogg Vorbis. The idea is that a commons resource such as public broadcasting should not be locked into proprietary technologies that can inhibit the public’s ability to access and use the audio streams.

Instead of relying exclusively on MP3 format, which is a patented technology, WBUR and other broadcasters should use the patent-free Ogg Vorbis format, FSF urged. This means that anyone is free to write software that understands the format, without paying a licensing fee to Alcatel-Lucent, the MP3 patent holder. Another advantage of Ogg Vorbis is its compatibility with a variety of media players and all operating systems. No one can inhibit its use.

FSF notes that this issue is not merely about a preference in technology, but a “serious ethical concern” that affects the freedom of Internet users to use a public resource. “Requiring listeners to use such proprietary corporate software,” the FSF letter to WBUR said, “weakens your effectiveness as a public resource, by positioning the patent holders and software owners as gatekeepers to your programming. This directly affects your listeners, because it means to play your stream they must use software whose developers have paid the patent tax.”

FSF also notes that “Ogg Vorbis has technological advantages over other formats, in that it compresses down to a smaller size than MP3, but is of equal sound quality. That means the more users that switch over to Ogg Vorbis, the more money you will save in bandwidth costs, while at the same time, those listeners will be receiving high-quality broadcasting.”

Update, May 14, 2008: NPR station WBUR Boston agreed to begin worldwide webcasting in the free audio format Ogg Vorbis. Free Software Foundation members are contemplating expanding the campaign to other public radio stations.