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November 3, 1999

Unisys Patent Crackdown Sparks “Burn All GIFs” Protest

By CBR Staff Writer

By Rachel Chalmers

When Unisys Corp hiked the fee on its patented LZW compression algorithm back in August 1999 (CI No 3,736) from $1,500 to $5,000 a year, executives probably didn’t realize what they were letting themselves in for. LZW compression is used in CompuServe’s GIF graphics file format, which at one time was enormously popular on the web. Developers who used licensed software to create their GIF files are covered by the licensing agreement between Unisys and the tools vendor. Where’s the catch? Open source advocates claim that it is difficult or impossible to get a Unisys license to use LZW compression in software that complies with the open source definition, or even in low-volume commercial software. To express their outrage, they’re taking to the streets.

On Burn All GIFs Day – Friday November 5, 1999 – a group of developers intend to gather at the Unisys headquarters in Brisbane, California, and symbolically burn their GIFs. Organizers have asked web authors to bring along printouts of GIFs, and because the Brisbane police say setting actual fires is illegal, the protestors plan to use red pens and crayons to draw flames on the printouts. Burn All GIFs Day is intended to be a peaceful event. The organizers don’t even want to interfere with the normal business day at Unisys. What they hope to do is draw attention to the increasing absurdity of US patent law as it is applied to technology.

I’ve talked to Unisys quite extensively, says organizer Don Marti, the publicity director of the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group. They’re just like any other nation in an arms race. When you’ve got people coming after you with a software patent infringement claim, your best defense is to come up with another software patent. He cites Amazon.com’s 1-click ordering as a good example of a patent that should never have been awarded. This is exactly what the good people at Netscape thought of when they came up with the cookie spec, he chuckles, but they thought it was too obvious to patent!

Marti acknowledges that those responsible for awarding patents are deluged with applications and often technically out of their depth. What he objects to is their practice of awarding patents anyway. You should definitely play it safe and not throw a patent into the mix that can stifle people’s ability to use obvious technology, he argues. This, and not the exercise of any particular grudge against Unisys, is the point of Burn All GIFs Day. We’re trying to raise the web community’s awareness of patent issues in general, Marti explains.

To that end, the Burn All GIFs Day organizers are encouraging their supporters to stop using GIFs altogether. There’s little if any reason to use them, Marti says. Rival technologies like PNG offer virtually all the features of GIFs, except for animation and transparency. I would say if you absolutely need a feature that’s in GIF, use your already-licensed feature in Adobe PhotoShop, Marti concludes. Stay away from the patent mess altogether. Software is already protected by every other form of IP law on the book… There’s no other field of business where a company has the luxury or opportunity of getting a patent, a copyright and a trademark, all in the same work.

Before Burn All GIFs Day, there was Windows Refund Day (CI No 3,595). Marti was one of the media pranksters behind that movement as well. Microsoft Corp, whose allegedly restrictive contracts with laptop OEMs were the target of the earlier protest, has yet to back down. Nevertheless, Windows Refund Day played a small role in the rise to prominence of the Linux operating system as an alternative to Windows on the desktop. Whether Burn All GIFs Day will discourage the Patent Office from awarding IP monopolies to IT leviathans is an open question; but at least the instigators will have prompted web developers to think a little more carefully about the algorithms and file formats they use.

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