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The mp3, also known as the more technical term MPEG 1 Audio Layer 3, is a type of digital audio compression file that has become astronomically popular within the last few years. A common mp3 file is encoded at a bit rate of 128 kilobits per second and takes up the same amount of storage space as 1/11 of a CD track. However, as always, mp3s are subject to the trade off between sound quality and size; an mp3 file encoded at a higher bit rate will sound better but take up more space than one created at a lower bit rate. Mp3s are often compared to JPEGs, a type of image compression file that is also popular. Mp3s and JPEGs work in a similar fashion to reduce the size of their files.
Even with the quality/size trade-off, mp3s are still much smaller than CD tracks or audio tapes. They have almost taken over the music industry completely, especially with help from the iPod, iTunes, and various other mp3 players and stores. Consumers can now easily carry around thousands of songs in one small device, something positively unheard of before the mp3 file was invented. Music listeners were limited to the use of CDs, with the average CD capacity being around twenty songs.
However, the widespread popularity of mp3s also heralded in a new era of music piracy. It became easier to share music files online, especially as more and more peer-to-peer or torrent companies took root. Recently, recording companies have taken extreme steps in prosecuting individuals found guilty of copyright infringement; however, thousands and thousands of individuals participate in file sharing and only a handful are caught and punished.
On the other hand, the development of the mp3 file has also helped music record sales; it is much easier for customers to buy songs online from credible retailers. Nowadays a consumer can go online, buy, and download just about any song they want in a matter of minutes. There is also the option of only buying songs that appeal to the individual customer; there is no need to purchase an entire album just for one song. Recording companies must walk the narrow line between selling music online and restricting illegal music file sharing, something they have yet to accomplish successfully.