Unisys Kicks Up a Ruckus Over GIF - Internet Style

The power of the Internet community was felt by computing giant Unisys when it attempted to pursue its intellectual property rights in .GIF format software. Unisys asserted its patent over the compression techniques used in Graphics Interchange Format or (GIF) graphics files...and all hell broke loose.

Unisys, after a week’s barracking on the Internet, executed a precipitous climb down by granting an amnesty for past infringements but insisted that it would still collect royalties for all software products that use its compression technology launched in 1995 and beyond. Unisys eased its requirement for sub-licensing for developers preparing software that only works directly with online services but will require all major online service providers to take a license and pay royalties as well as all independent developers.

GIF uses the Lempel-Ziv-Welch compression technique to reduce file sizes which is protected by Unisys’s US patent 4,558,302. The compression algorithm covered by the patent is also used in other graphics formats, notably TIFF (Tagged Image File Format). Unisys’s intention to collect from developers supporting the GIF standard emerged on December 28 when CompuServe announced that it had taken a licence and was offering a sub-licence to developers building CompuServe add-ons.

Unisys employee Welch originally published his techniques in an engineering journal in the early 1980s where it was subsequently adopted by a number of companies including CompuServe. In promoting GIF, CompuServe was trying to build and promote a free, machine-independent graphics standard. Over time GIF has become an defacto standard for people needing to exchange 256-bit colour graphics files and is the graphics format that most World Wide Web browsers interpret as default and most desktop graphics packages include reading and writing .GIFs as a standard function.

The sub-licensing requirement was the straw that broke this particular camel’s back, effecting thousands of software developers, large and small. The CompuServe sub-licence is only available for developers whose products are "primarily" used with data originating from the CompuServe system. CompuServe sub-licensees will have to p ay CompuServe a one-time $1, most of which goes to Unisys, and for each piece of software sold, the author has to pay either 1.5% of the selling price or 15 cents, whichever was greater. CompuServe felt that it was doing a good turn for its developers, believing that the deal they cut was better than ones that authors would be able to strike with Unisys direct.

CompuServe is the distribution mechanism for thousands of inexpensive ‘shareware’ software packages, some of which handle GIF format graphics. Unfortunately, CompuServe’s agreement appeared to preclude shareware authors allowing people to try out the software for a period before buying it.

All other developers not covered by an online license will have to negotiate with Unisys on an individual basis and there is no set fee. Negotiating a separate license with Unisys is likely to be too protracted or expensive for legions of small developers.

A number of developers are vowing to adopt a genuinely free standard to avoid paying royalties and GXF or Graphics Exchange Format has been mooted. But as GIF is entrenched as a standard, there will be a need for file handling capabilities in any commercial package for some time to come.

The row has generated plenty of bad publicity for Unisys demonstrating soon after Intel Pentium/Internet débâcle that the Internet is emerging as a rapid reacting, vociferous force in the commercial world.