The Latest GIF Tiff

SAN FRANCISCO (04/25/2000) - On April 14, AccuWeather.com announced that it would in the next month cease distributing weather maps and other weather graphics to its clients using the GIF (graphics interchange format) file format, opting to send out its images with the open-source PNG (portable network graphics) standard instead.

The change will be transparent to nearly all visitors to the site because most Web browsers, including Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer versions 4 and 5, as well as America Online Inc.'s Netscape version 4, support PNG. However, open-source advocates are calling the AccuWeather switch-over a victory in the ongoing campaign against GIFs -- which contain a file-encoding system patented in America, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Britain by Unisys.com - and against software patents in general.

"This matters very much for any Web master," says Don Marti, a software developer and spokesman for the online coalition 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."

Partly at issue in the GIF storm is the file format's open-and-closed history:

When CompuServe.com 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 due to a mutual oversight, no one had announced that GIFs in fact contained 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.

According to Mark Starr, Unisys' patent counsel, the terms of LZW licenses have varied as the Web has developed. One type of agreement seeks a fraction of 1 percent royalty on sales of LZW/GIF products, while another charges a flat US$5,000 fee. (GIFs produced by commercial software, such as Adobe Photoshop or The Gimp, are already covered by the software vendor's license. However, software that dynamically creates GIFs to generate maps or charts on the fly generally needs to be licensed.) In AccuWeather's case, CNET reported that the total bill could have run as high as $3.8 million. Neither AccuWeather nor Unisys would confirm any details of their past or present agreements.

Reports of alleged licensing tiffs led some geeks to speculate that for the final three years of the LZW patent's life, Unisys may be putting the screws to a competing weather data provider.

On the other hand, Starr points out that AccuWeather must have found Unisys' license at least partly agreeable because they've continued to reserve the right to run GIFs on the AccuWeather homepage. "One might ask why they're keeping it for themselves but not providing it to their customers," Starr says.

Barry Myers, executive vice president of AccuWeather, said the company has made only one of its two decisions on licensing the Unisys patent. Whether it will keep GIFs at all remains an open question.

"The GIF patent, as you may know, is at the end of its useful life," he said.

"It expires in 2003. And there are new things out there. …We're looking at the PNG format, which has better resolution and better color transmissibility and several other advantages across the board."

AccuWeather-Unisys particulars aside, the larger concern that spawned such a heated response to the "Unisys tax" in the first place is the disputed patentability of any software. Before the 1981 Supreme Court decision Diamond vs. 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 says. "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. Nobody except for a company like Yahoo.com or America Online, who can afford to hire three lawyers per Web developer, would be able to operate a successful Web site in an atmosphere of unrestricted software patents."

Starr, on the other hand, said the current debate misses the point about patents, arguing that they provide the impetus both for Unisys to collect on its innovations and for software professionals to develop new ideas and code, such as PNG.

"These were the identical arguments that were put forth with the automobile -- and advances in the automobile, such as automatic transmission -- or when the Xerox process came along or when the telephone was invented," he says.

"If you look behind the people involved with Burn All GIFs Day," he adds, "they're involved in open-source code. They think the Web should be a free medium of expression and you should be able to do whatever you want. If you defame somebody, fine. If you transfer somebody else's intellectual property, be it music or code or a patent, fine. They want everything to be free and let's all be friends. But fortunately, this is not the American way. The American way is for people to come up with a good idea and try to capitalize on it. ...I think the system we have is wonderful."

Stifling competition or spurring innovation: The debate has been a familiar one as patents on software, algorithms and business methods have been garnering considerable media attention. Of course, it doesn't take a classical odyssey to realize the dangers of veering too fast toward either Scylla or Charybdis.

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