GIF tiff portends patent problems

A decision this month by AccuWeather.com can serve as a storm warning for Webmasters over software and patents.

AccuWeather.com has announced that in May it will cease distributing weather graphics in the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) file format, opting to use the open-source Portable Network Graphics (PNG) standard instead.

Visitors to the site won't notice the change because most World Wide Web browsers support the PNG format. However, open-source advocates are calling the AccuWeather switch a victory in the campaign against GIFs — which contain a file-encoding system patented by Unisys Corp. — and against software patents in general.

"This matters very much for any Webmaster," said Don Marti, a software developer and spokesman for an online coalition called Burn All GIFs. "It's a very slippery slope. If you let one company get away with charging for patent licenses on a small, trivial piece of technology, then the next company's going to come along and try to do the same thing."

When CompuServe introduced GIF in 1987, it presented the format as a free and open standard. But seven years later, after GIF had become universally accepted, Unisys and CompuServe announced that GIFs contain a patent-protected algorithm, a Unisys-owned data-compression technique called LZW — and thus required licensing. In the ensuing six years, Unisys has authorized more than 2,000 LZW agreements, making it perhaps the most widely licensed patent in history.

GIFs produced by commercial software, such as Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop, are covered by the software vendor's license, but software that dynamically creates GIFs to generate maps or charts on the fly generally needs to be licensed.

One type of licensing agreement seeks a fraction of 1 percent royalty on sales of LZW/GIF products, while another charges a flat $5,000 fee, according to Mark Starr, Unisys' patent counsel.

The larger dispute that spawned such a heated response to the "Unisys tax" is the patentability of any software. Before the 1981 Supreme Court decision Diamond v. Diehr, software typically could be protected only by copyright, not patents. Because computer software ultimately breaks down to mathematical formulas and algorithms, many industry observers have asserted that legal restrictions have gone too far when human thought itself can be fenced in with proprietary boundaries.

"The GIF is a symbol for what can happen when the patent system breaks," Marti said. "Look at the amount of code that's running on your Web server today. You've got programs that deal with HTTP, with the operating system itself, with the hardware. Out of all the software on a typical Web server, the LZW compression algorithm is just a tiny, tiny amount.

"And if we let every company that writes a tiny, trivial piece of software get a patent license from everyone who wants to have a Web site, then the Web becomes impossible."

— For more Internet economy news, visit TheStandard.com. Story copyright 2000 The Industry Standard. All rights reserved.

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