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MP3 rival attempts to shield developers

The group of programmers trying to create an open-source alternative to the MP3 format is going nonprofit, hoping to raise funds and give developers legal cover.

The group of programmers trying to create an open-source alternative to the MP3 format is going nonprofit, hoping to raise funds and give developers legal cover in an increasingly litigious online music world.

The team behind the Ogg Vorbis format has created the Xiph Foundation, which will serve as a nonprofit parent for the open-source development efforts. The programmers are trying to create a format for online music that will carry none of the patent license fees associated with MP3 and other proprietary technologies.

The foundation is designed partly to raise money for the project, which has been without steady funding since Net radio station and erstwhile parent iCast closed its door. The development efforts are now being supported through a few donations and the personal savings of the people involved.

But the nonprofit status also should help the project establish a foothold in the corporate world, where developers hope to see the technology supported inside music player software, video games and devices. This requires some guarantee of longevity and legal stability for the project, as the team is going up against the interests of powerful corporations that own rights to the dominant online music formats.

"If a company should attempt to sue the project, they are most likely going to sue the copyright holder, which would be the (Xiph) Foundation," said Jack Moffitt, one of the developers and a board member of the new nonprofit. "None of the developers should have to risk personal liability to contribute to the project."

The programmers have a difficult task ahead of them in attempting to convince a large portion of the online music world to switch to their technology alongside MP3 or other familiar formats such as Microsoft's Windows Media.

They've made some considerable inroads in the eight months since their first beta release. The format is already supported in the latest version of the Sonique digital music software and in plug-in format for AOL Time Warner's Winamp player.

More recently, the group won a foothold inside Iomega's digital audio player, as operating system seller Interactive Objects agreed to add support for Vorbis into its system.

Despite these successes, the fight for dominance among the leading music formats is growing fiercer. Microsoft is stepping up its activity on behalf of Windows Media, making the case that its format has the best antipiracy protections since its security system taps deep into the Windows operating system. The Fraunhofer Institute and Thomson Multimedia, the patent holders behind MP3 technology, are working on an improved version of MP3, due later this year.

Those two technologies are already supported in most of the players and hardware on the market.

The Vorbis programmers are changing tack slightly to help spread their work, modifying their license provisions so that the format can be integrated more easily into proprietary devices and software programs. Similar models have been seen elsewhere in the open-source world, notably in the case of the popular Apache Web server.

A spokesman for Thomson Multimedia, which maintains the MP3 technology licensing program, said the company isn't monitoring the Vorbis project closely. Nevertheless, they are on the lookout for possible patent infringements, he said.

"We continue to follow Ogg Vorbis," said Henri Linde, vice president of new business at Thomson . "I would say we continue to have some thoughts that it is very likely that they are using some of the Thomson/Fraunhofer solutions in the project...But it's not part of our daily concern."