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MP3 is a near-CD quality file format for sound files, and is very popular for music on the web. It's becoming more popular as people use it to swap music online because of its powerful compression. For example, you can get hundreds of songs on a single CD using the MP3 format.

It is a revolutionary digital audio format developed by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and Thompson Multimedia in the late 1980s and brought to the mainstream through the Internet in 1997. MP3 is short for MPEG (Moving Pictures Experts Group) Layer - 1 , the group that help make MP3 an international standard.

In the first half of 1995 through the late 1990s, MP3 files began to spread on the Internet. MP3's popularity began to rise rapidly with the advent of Nullsoft's audio player Winamp (released in 1997), the Unix audio player mpg123 and the peer-to-peer file sharing network Napster (released in 1999). These programs made it simple for average users to play back, create, share and collect MP3s.

The small size of MP3 files has enabled widespread peer-to-peer file sharing of music which would previously have been impossible. The major record companies, who argue that such free sharing of music reduces sales, reacted to this by pursuing law-suits against Napster, which was eventually closed down, and eventually against individual users who engaged in file sharing.

Despite the popularity of MP3, online music retailers often use other proprietary formats which are encrypted (known as Digital Rights Management) to prevent users from using purchased music in ways not specifically authorised by the record companies. The record companies argue that this is necessary to prevent the files from being made available on peer-to-peer file sharing networks. However, this has other side effects such as preventing users from playing back their purchased music on different types of devices. Some services, such as eMusic, continue to offer the MP3 format which allows users to playback their music on virtually any device.

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