Activists to set fire to files at Unisys

Unisys' policy on licensing fees for graphics software is drawing howls of outrage from freeware advocates who allege the fees may discourage small-time Website developers.

An ad hoc group, developed to oppose the policy, plans to protest outside Unisys offices in Brisbane, near San Francisco, and burn files containing the vendor's technology.

"The entire Web explosion is due to the fact that we have open standards and non-patented technology that allows people to communicate," said Don Marti, spokesman for the protest group, which calls itself Burn All GIFs. "If the only sites able to exist are the ones that have to negotiate a complex patent license with Unisys, you are going to see a stifling of many Web businesses."

At issue is Unisys' policy statement on licensing fees issued in late August relating to the use of GIF (graphics interchange format)-based graphics software employing the company's patented LZW (Lempel Ziv Welch) compression technology.

Unisys charges licensing fees to commercial graphics processing software vendors, such as Macromedia, Adobe Systems, and Visio, who pay fees to Unisys to use the GIF format.

However, the fees the protesters object to concern the use of GIF-based software in freely available graphics processing programs such as GIMP (GNU image manipulation program) and Imagemagic. In its licensing statement, issued in August of this year, Unisys said use of such "freeware" programs requires a fee payment.

Marti said the fees will discourage people who have a business idea they might want to turn into a Website or ideas they want to publish on the internet.

The Burn All GIFs group advocates that Website developers move from GIF-based technology to the newer, PNG (portable network graphics) format, which is not patented and is freely available. Many browsers support the PNG format, including the latest versions of Netscape's and Microsoft's Web browsers, Marti said.

Unisys charges $US5,000 for any simple Website running its GIF technology on one to two servers. For more complex sites, such as those hosting electronic commerce applications, offering subscriptions, online services or advertising, Unisys seeks a negotiated settlement.

However, the large proportion of Website developers use off-the-shelf graphics processing software from 2,000 companies that have signed licensing agreement with Unisys, said Brian Daly, a Unisys spokesman.

"The main point is we are not going to go after every mom-and-pop Website, as people have portrayed it," Daly said. "But we believe strongly we have the right to charge license fees for software we developed."

The recent Unisys licensing statement merely reiterates policy that has been in effect for four years, he said. In 1995, the company issued a statement allowing free graphics software to be exempted from the licensing arrangement, but changed the policy to re-include it shortly thereafter, Daly said.

"The majority of people creating Websites are using off-the-shelf software with LZW technology, with the license already paid," he added.

Both parties to the controversy associate GIF with the term "freeware," or copyrighted software given away for free by its author. Opposition to the Unisys fees is also being supported by some figures in the open-source community, including Eric Raymond, the president of the Open Source Initiative. The open-source movement promotes source code that is made available for modification and is publicly distributed free of charge.

"Open standards and non-patent protocols made the internet what it is today," Marti at Burn All GIFs said. "If we had to deal with patents for HTTP and HTML, there would not be an internet."

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