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The End of the GIF-Giving Season

On January 3rd, 1995, an announcement appeared in CompuServe’s GRAPHSUPPORT forum that sent a shock wave through the online community. Apparently, the popular GIF graphics file format was now proprietary and users must have secured a license from CompuServe by January 10th in order to keep using GIF files. As it turned out, this interpretation wasn’t entirely congruent with the truth, but that didn’t stop the firestorm of debate that ensued.

GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) is a graphics file format introduced by CompuServe in 1987. Its purpose was to enable users on multiple platforms – Macs, PCs, Amigas, or whatever – to download and view pictures. Back in the days of 1200 baud modems, GIFs were pretty much just time-consuming curiosities. But as bandwidth increased, more tools became available, and as the Internet and BBS communities expanded, GIF became the de facto standard for distributing graphics online. Not surprisingly, it’s also the graphic format of choice for the World-Wide Web, and is the only graphics format supported internally by the three major Macintosh Web browsers. (Netscape also supports JPEG; see below.)

So why the controversy, especially over a file format that’s been around for years? The problem lies in the GIF format’s use of LZW (Lempel-Zev-Welch) compression and decompression. Graphic files can be very large: a full-screen (640 x 480), 256-color image requires 2,457,600 bits of memory to be represented internally by your computer. (That translates to about 300K.) In those days of 1200 baud modems, no one in their right mind downloaded a 300K file just to see a picture. By making use of LZW compression, however, that same file could be considerably smaller in GIF format, although the exact amount of savings varied depending on the picture. Suddenly downloading graphics became more practical.

How Did We Get Here From There? The LZW compression method was originally published in a journal by a Unisys engineer and was used by a number of developers (not just CompuServe) for a variety of purposes. Unbeknownst to these developers, Unisys later applied for a patent on the LZW compression technology. The patent was granted in 1993.

Now here’s where the debacle begins. Unisys, apparently, didn’t bother to make any public statement as to its licensing policy or intentions: it merely called up major GIF-related developers – like CompuServe – and started talking about infringement suits. These developers, caught by Unisys’s "submarine patent," began licensing negotiations. When CompuServe negotiators reached an agreement with Unisys in mid-1994, they apparently didn’t bother to tell anybody either. They merely "initiated a process" to secure a similar license that would benefit their community of GIF-related developers.

When CompuServe managed to make an arrangement with Unisys whereby developers could obtain a GIF license from CompuServe rather than Unisys directly, all manner of chaos broke loose. First, "official" announcements appearing in CompuServe’s forums were often incomplete or misleading (one even misspelled Unisys consistently). Second, it was unclear whether the restrictions on the GIF format applied only to developers or also to anyone using the GIF format. GIFs are used almost everywhere, especially on the World-Wide Web. If the GIF file format was no longer free to use, literally tens of thousands of WWW sites, software programs, and images would have to be licensed, recalled, or go offline until the images could be licensed or replaced.

Several interpretations of the badly-phrased CompuServe announcements began to circulate on the Internet. Unisys probably got off a little easier because many people thought it was all CompuServe’s fault, but newsgroup threads and email flew thick and furious. Some felt the agreement was irrelevant, since Unisys could never prosecute everyone using the GIF format. Some heralded the death of the GIF, and still others thought the whole thing was a joke, especially in the wake of the recent "Good Times" virus hoax. Wags even updated the popular line to "Death of the Net Predicted – JPEG at 11."

What’s the Deal? Eventually, Unisys and CompuServe issued press releases and clarifications:

  1. Unisys is requiring all software developers using the GIF format in "commercial, for-profit" software to obtain licenses. This means that users viewing and distributing GIF files are in the clear, as are freeware and non-profit applications.
  2. CompuServe has provided an optional licensing agreement that can be used by developers of software "primarily for use with the CompuServe Information Service" rather than dealing with Unisys directly.

One upshot of #1, above, is that graphics programs and commercial WWW browsers which read or write the GIF format (like Photoshop and Netscape) will have to obtain licenses in order to continue using GIF. Some people think this will be a big problem, others see it as a side issue since some of these developers (like Adobe) already license the TIFF format from Unisys. The debate has also sparked interest in replacements for the GIF format. A commonly suggested alternative has been JPEG, which typically achieves far better compression than GIF and can use 24-bit color (GIF is limited to 256-color images). The difficulty with JPEG is that it’s a "lossy" compression format: it throws out some data in order to achieve better compression. Other formats receiving attention include PBF, GEF, and FGF (variants or deliberate replacements for GIF).

Lessons Learned? Unisys’s filing for a patent of the LZW technology after the GIF format had been widely adopted by the computer industry is, to say the least, questionable. Threatening to file infringement suits after seven years of encouraged use of the GIF format is, to say the least, highly questionable. Many companies and developers have found themselves in a position of having been unwitting partners to Unisys. This has damaged these companies’ reputations and relationships with their developers; even without that, I’m sure Unisys’s actions wouldn’t make them happy.

Further, you’d think that after watching Intel get nailed by the commercial and Internet communities during the Pentium fiasco, Unisys and CompuServe – companies specializing in information technology – would have gone to some effort to make their policies and intentions clear online. Although Unisys did eventually release a decent clarification and CompuServe seems to have finally gotten its message across, engendering that amount of rhetoric, rage, and misinformation can at the very least be viewed as irresponsible, possibly inexcusable. Eventually, companies and vendors will learn not to turn a blind side to the Internet community; however, until that day they will have to be content to take their bruises.

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