holds the patent for a data compression algorithm known as LZW. Many years ago
CompuServe used LZW as the basis of its GIF image format. In 1995 it obtained
a license fee arrangement from CompuServe. It has also obtained licensing arrangements
with most major commercial vendors of graphics programs. Unisys is now asking
Web developers to determine whether the software they are using is properly
licensed; if not, Unisys is requesting a $5,000 fee from sites displaying GIF
files. Web developers are organizing an event at Unisys' Bluebell, PA, headquarters
at which artists and users will burn GIF images in protest.
fees Unisys may get from this patent are probably noise to its overall revenues
($7.2 billion in 1998), and the company is not a competitor with others from
which it is seeking licensing fees. The potential impact of this action is on
companies using the GIF format. GIF is the most popular image format for the
Internet, especially for original artwork, although the JPEG format is frequently
used for photographic images. With millions of GIF images all over the Internet
it is not hard to believe that a strong legal challenge by Unisys will have
wide-ranging effects. However, although many web developers and other users
have formed the opinion that Unisys is out to wring pennies from every single
GIF image, that does not seem to be the case. The recent announcement is less
a new policy than a new tactic. Unisys had already been attempting to get for-profit
websites to certify that their GIF images were created by licensed software.
The recent announcement is in fact a reduction in the license costs, according
to the company. It may, of course, also be a shot across the bow of large websites
and portals which they suspect are using GIF images created by software that
did not license the LZW patent. But Unisys claims that while they are seeking,
in their stockholders' interest, to obtain fees from for-profit users of the
compression algorithm, they are not attempting to gain control of the GIF format.
The company claims to have offered free licences to non-profit users and websites,
and is only interested in license arrangements with large, profit-making sites.
"We're not after people doing Beanie Baby sites," said Unisys spokesperson Oliver
Pitcher. Pitcher suggested that Unisys' attempts to collect fees will not slow
down the use of the Web or the use of the GIF format.
It is worth
noting that there is a new graphics standard called PNG (and a closely related
companion called MNG that handles animation and other multimedia effects) that
can be used freely. Conversion of existing GIF format files to PNG is not difficult,
and at least the high-end design tools such as those from Corel and Adobe can
generate PNG as easily as they can generate GIF. The only reason for not converting
all images to PNG immediately is that only the latest generations of browsers
support it well.
by the Unisys patent are manufacturers of software that creates GIF files, sites
that post such files, and companies that may give away, in support of equipment
such as digital cameras of scanners, "free" software that uses the LZW algorithm.
Unisys has agreement with most of the first group. Comments made by a company
patent lawyer at SlashDot suggest that the real thrust of this announcement
is to get compliance from the third group, those who issue "free" software with
their equipment. Of the websites, those most likely to be at risk would be large
enough to attract Unisys' notice and cheap enough to use inexpensive graphics
software. Also possibly at risk, depending on unrevealed aspects of Unisys'
strategy, would be sites that post user-generated GIF images; among such sites
could be ISP users' sites and special interest sites. A large site that earns
revenue will probably be happy to pay the $5,000 fee just to make the letters
from Unisys' patent attorneys go away. Others will probably not be contacted,
although they are certainly free to offer to pay the license fee if they believe
that to be appropriate.
The real winner
browsers for granted, it won't be more than 18 months before PNG images appear
regularly on websites, and not too long after that GIF will be history, except
on pages that are not maintained. Since PNG is generally believed to be superior
in many ways to GIF, this will be a good development for all. Whether the enmity
of web developers, and the piles of ashes outside their headquarters, will have
much affect on Unisys remains to be seen, but the facts do not seem to support