The Quick and Easy Definition
MP3 (MPEG-1 Audio Layer-3) is a type of technology that allows a music or audio file to be compressed down into a very small amount of space (about one-twelfth the size of that on a traditional audio CD) while preserving the original level of sound quality when it is played. These files can be downloaded from the Internet, or can played by software on your computer. However, even though many MP3 files are offered on CD’s, most normal CD players (such as a Diskman or your car stereo’s CD-Player) will not currently play MP3 audio files directly. You will need either a special MP3 player, or a software program such as WinAmp or Real Jukebox on your computer in order to actually listen to the files. The technology exist that will play both regular audio and MP3 Cd’s, but these players are still very expensive.
For The More Computer Savvy
MP3 files (identified with the file name suffix of “.mp3”) are available for downloading from a number of Web sites. Many Windows 98 users will find that they have a player built into their operating system. Otherwise, you can download a player from one of several popular MP3 sites. MP3 files are usually download-and-play files rather than streaming sound files that you link-and-listen-to with RealPlayer and similar products (However, streaming MP3 is possible). Winamp (PC), MacAmp (Mac), and mpeg123 (UNIX) are popular MP3 players, but there are many others. To create an MP3 file, you use a program called a “ripper” to get a selection from a CD onto your hard disk, and another program called an “encoder” to convert the selection to an MP3 file. Most people, however, simply download MP3s from someone else and play them.
For The More Technically-Minded
Digital audio is typically created by taking 44,100 samples of the sound each second. As each sample requires 16 binary digits (bits) to encode it to a satisfactory resolution, one second of CD quality stereo audio requires around 1.4 million bits of data. Using their knowledge of how people actually perceive sound, the developers of MP3 devised a compression algorithm that reduces data about sound that most listeners can not perceive. MP3 is currently the most powerful algorithm in a series of audio encoding standards developed under the sponsorship of the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) and formalized by the International Organization for Standardization (International Organization for Standardization).
Why Is MP3 Such A Great Thing?
Since the audio files are in digital format, they can be highly compressed in size. Thus they take much less time to transmit over data lines such as network cable and telephone modems. They can also be stored in electronic format on memory cards and hard drives much easier than normal audio files, taking up much less space than straight audio (.wav files). This makes them ideal for “uploading” to a portable player and taking on the road! Since they are basically just computer data, they can be stored “in memory”, rather than needing a CD with its larger, bulkier player. Most current portable MP3 players are about the size of a pack of cards!
Is Downloading Free MP3 Files Illegal?
Yes and No. Since it is relatively easy to create MP3 files from CD selections and make them available on Web sites for downloading, companies and sites that promote the MP3 format are sometimes accused of encouraging copyright violations. (It is illegal to copy music from a CD and redistribute it unless you have the copyright owner’s permission.) On the other hand, MP3 enthusiasts claim that what CD publishers are afraid of is any kind of non-CD distribution. While there are several proposals for how to discourage such piracy, there is currently no secure distribution and copyright management standard that publishers and other parties agree upon. Several Web sites are promoting MP3 as both a high-quality audio format and as a way in which self-publishers can gain ready access to an audience. Currently, some music publishers are providing sample cuts in the MP3 format as a way to entice users to buy a CD. However, not much mainstream copyrighted material is available except as an illegal download.
As a general rule, free MP3 downloads are acceptable if they are provided by the vendor, artist, or distributor of the original material. Any time you find commercial files being offered at personal web sites, or on open-share sites like “Napster” or “MP3.com”, proceed with extreme caution. Remember - downloading copyrighted material without permission is the same as installing software that you didn’t buy. It’s not “sharing”, it’s theft.
(The above information was obtained primarily from the WhatIs website.)