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Network: Web Design - A graphic case of patent nonsense

It's as if Cro-Magnon man showed up saying he has the patent for sitting
I HAVE some bad news for you. First, sit down. I don't want to be responsible for people hurting themselves, fainting from disbelief or falling down in hysterical laughter. OK, ready?

You owe Unisys $5,000. That's right. If you use the GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) on your website, and I know that each and every one of you does, then you owe Unisys five grand.

You see, Unisys owns the patent for the LZW (Lempe-Zev-Welch) compression scheme that GIF is based on, and they want their piece of the Web pie. So they are asking website administrators to fork over $5,000 for use of GIFs on up to two servers, or $7,500 to license LZW technology for use onintranets and websites (see http://corp2. unisys.com/ LeadStory/lzw- license. html).

It's as if a Cro-Magnon man suddenly showed up saying that he has the patent for sitting, so anyone using chairs has to pay him for the privilege. Alas, Unisys does have the patent for LZW compression, and, owing to some flaws in the US patenting system, it does have a case.

Do you really need to worry about this? The short answer is: probably not. If you created GIF images using software from companies that have a licensing agreement with Unisys, then you are "probably covered". However, Unisys goes on to say: "Licence terms vary from company to company, so users should contact their software provider to determine whether the software is licensed for their intended use." The burden is on you to do so.

I tried to contact a typical large software company. I saw on the Unysis website that Adobe, maker of a leading graphics package for creating GIFs for use on the Web, has a licence. So I thought I would try to find out whether this would cover the GIFs I create using their software. I went to Adobe's website and hunted for references to the LZW format licence.

I could find nothing more than that many Adobe products support LZW compression. So after searching through several levels of Web pages, I finally found a link to a response form at the bottom of a page which allowed me to send an e-mail to Adobe. I sent in my questions: "Is Adobe Photoshop 5.0 licensed with Unisys to use the GIF format (and LZW compression)? Can I legally display GIFs created with Photoshop on a website without a license from Unisys?" I received an auto response e-mail with a list of links to documents on the Adobe site (most of which I had already found). One of these looked promising, but, again, it made no mention of the licence with Unisys. I still had no answers.

What's more, do you really think that the shareware GIF animation program that forms the cornerstone of your Web graphics arsenal has paid the licensing fee? Probably not. Most shareware and freeware authors create programs for the sheer joy of it, and stay clear of any technology that they or their users have to pay for.

What is galling about this situation is that, though it is unlikely, Big Brother Unisys could send you a "cease and desist" order to stop showing your website until you prove that your "papers" are in order to display your graphics.

But this really isn't about a few freeware programs, or your grandma's home page. This is a desperate effort by a computer company to generate some revenue from, as the League of Programming Freedom put it, a "historical accident" (http://lpf.ai.mit. edu). Larger companies that use the GIF format on their websites will pay the licensing fee without blinking. Mega-corporations spend more then $5,000 just to get their lawyers out of bed and won't waste a dollar fighting this, no matter how ridiculous it seems.

Yet the GIF format is an archaic and clumsy graphic format that is really only used now because when graphic browsers were first developed, it seemed like a good enough option. Apparently, no one knew about the licence (that's the historical accident). In fact, until the Web came along, hardly anyone was using this format. In the entire Photoshop 3 bible of 1994, there is only one paragraph dealing with the GIF format. And what does it say about this that is worth so much today? "The lion's share of the world's GIF images are pornographic."

So what are the alternatives? Several "Web Activists" have started a website called Burn all GIFs (www.burnallgifs.org) to stage a protest against Unisys and to help educate Web designers on other graphic formats that they can use in place of GIFs.

The most promising alternative to GIF is PNG (Portable Network Graphics), a standardised and patent-free graphic format supported by the World Wide Web Consortium, which includes several features that make it a superior choice over GIF. Unfortunately, it has two major drawbacks that have prevented it from seeing wide-scale adaptation. It cannot do animations, and it is not supported in browsers previous to version 4.0.

So it looks as if we are stuck with GIF. Unisys is certainly entitled to compensation for its work. However, by thumbing its nose at the Web community and taking such a hard-hearted approach, it will do far more to kill the GIF format than any technically superior format ever could.

The writer is author of `DHTML for the World Wide Web'. An archive of his column is at http://www. webbedenvironments.com; e-mail him at jason@ webbedenvironments.com