Ogg Vorbis is a wiser choice.

The BBC reports that Sisvel is targetting SanDisk for not paying their MP3 licensing fee. It’s a warning to users as well; users can be sued for patent infringement too. Paul Heckel, a software developer who held patents which allegedly covered something which was done in Apple’s Hypercard program. When Apple wouldn’t license his patents straight away, Heckel told Apple he’d threaten Apple’s users with patent infringement lawsuits and then Apple was compelled to negotiate a license fee with Heckel. Heckel could have done what the RIAA is doing now, albeit with patent infringement instead of copyright infringement.

The trouble SanDisk has with patents that cover ideas used in software is hardly new. Microsoft was recently sued by Eolas, a firm whose chief “product” is a patent covering a method of using plugins with web browsers. Microsoft had the money to fight that lawsuit but this is an uncommon privilege (and one wonders how much of Microsoft’s money is ill-gotten gain being the loser of the US’ largest antitrust lawsuit). Talk to most software developers in countries that have so-called “software patents” and you’ll find out they retard innovation and narrow the field of competition to the giants (as Bill Gates put it years ago in a famous memo). Consumers are not well served by software patents and neither is science in general. One might wonder if the same problems exist in other fields in which patents are granted.

According to Richard Stallman

In the 1980’s the Australian Government commissioned a study of the patent system. The patent system in general, not software patents. This study concluded that Australia would be better off abolishing the patent system because it did very little good for society and cause a lot of trouble. The only reason they didn’t recommend [not establishing a patent regime] is that international pressure. So one of the things they cited was that patents which was supposed to disclose information so that they would no longer be secret or in fact useless, for that purpose, engineers never looked at patents to try and learn anything because it’s too hard to read them. In fact they quoted that an engineer saying “I can’t recognize my own inventions in patents”.

Had people looked more closely at MP3 early on and recognized the trouble with MP3 being patent-encumbered, they might have chosen a technically superior format that does the same job and is not encumbered by patents: Ogg Vorbis. The specifications are available for anyone to implement, even commercially, without fee and there are encoders and decoders licensed under remarkably generous terms so that the use of Ogg Vorbis will spread.

While it is too late to avoid this problem with MP3s, we can encourage people to switch to unencumbered codecs. We have a chance to avoid this problem for other kinds of files such as word processor, spreadsheet, and slideshow presentation files by encouraging the use of Open Document Format instead of the formats which will be used by upcoming versions of Microsoft Office. The easiest way to do this work is to encourage the use of free software office programs such as OpenOffice.org and KOffice.

Update: Sandisk fought the seizure order overturned so Sandisk was able to show their products on the last day of an electronics fair. While one can be sued for anything, one can take steps to avoid being sued—avoid the apparent buzzsaw that is MP3 licensing and go with something less risky.