Web Design

Unisys puts a high price on those GIFs you've probably got on your site
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I HAVE somebad news for you. First, sit down. I don't want to be responsiblefor people hurting themselves, fainting from disbelief or falling down inhysterical laughter. OK, ready?

I HAVE somebad news for you. First, sit down. I don't want to be responsiblefor people hurting themselves, fainting from disbelief or falling down inhysterical laughter. OK, ready?

You owe Unisys $5,000.That's right. If you use the GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) onyour website, and I know that each and every one of you does, then youowe 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 websiteadministrators to fork over $5,000 for use of GIFs on up to twoservers, or $7,500 to license LZW technology for use onintranets andwebsites (see http://corp2.unisys.com/LeadStory/lzw-license.html).

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

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

I tried to contact a typical large software company. I saw onthe Unysis website that Adobe, maker of a leading graphics package forcreating GIFs for use on the Web, has a licence. So I thought I would tryto 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 formatlicence.

I could find nothing more than that many Adobe products supportLZW 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 allowedme to send an e-mail to Adobe. I sent in my questions: "Is AdobePhotoshop 5.0 licensed with Unisys to use the GIF format (and LZWcompression)? Can I legally display GIFs created with Photoshop on awebsite without a license from Unisys?" I received an auto responsee-mail with a list of links to documents on the Adobe site (most of whichI had already found). One of these looked promising, but,again, it made no mention of the licence with Unisys. I still had noanswers.

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

What is galling about thissituation is that, though it is unlikely, Big Brother Unisys could sendyou a "cease and desist" order to stop showing your website until youprove that your "papers" are in order to display your graphics.

But this really isn't about a few freeware programs, or yourgrandma's home page. This is a desperate effort by a computer company togenerate some revenue from, as the League of Programming Freedom put it,a "historical accident". Larger companies that use the GIF format on their websites will paythe licensing fee without blinking. Mega-corporations spend more then$5,000 just to get their lawyers out of bed and won't waste a dollarfighting this, no matter how ridiculous it seems.

Yet the GIF format isan archaic and clumsy graphic format that is really only used now because whengraphic browsers were first developed, it seemed like a good enoughoption. Apparently, no one knew about the licence (that's thehistorical accident). In fact, until the Web came along, hardlyanyone 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 sayabout this that is worth so much today? "The lion's share of theworld's GIF images are pornographic."

So what are thealternatives? Several "Web Activists" have started a website calledBurn all GIFs to stage a protest againstUnisys and to help educate Web designers on other graphic formats that they canuse in place of GIFs.

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

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

Jason Cranford Teague is theauthor of DHTML for the World Wide Web. You can find an archive of thiscolumn at WebbedEnvironments.