GIFs, compression standards and patent law

My friend Jeff Cosgwell was musing about Unisys and its recently expired LZW patents here in the United States and I thought it’d be cool to give him a “bully pulpit” here to talk about it. For those that don’t know, LZW (Lempel-Ziv-Welch) is an ingenious compression algorithm that’s built into the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF). Ring a bell? Web pages are littered with GIF images – they’re the primary graphics format for all images, whether logos, buttons, or even just rounded corners on table layouts. There’s a very good explanation of the legal issues at this Geocities site and other than that, Jeff,
take it away…

One comment on “GIFs, compression standards and patent law

  1. Well thank you, Dave. First I want to say hello to… lol
    Anyway, I’m curious what other people have to say about this. Apparently that while Unisys admits that their patent in the US has expired, they say they still hold patents in Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. They claim also that if an American software developer creates software that uses LZW technology and sells it to people in one of these five countries, that the developer is still liable and must pay a licensing fee. However, my thought is this: How would they sue the American developer? They can’t sue the developer in the US because the US courts are not in place to defend foreign laws. Therefore, they would have to file a suit in one of the five countries in question. But can an American company sue an American individual in any of these five countries? Maybe. But even bigger is this: WOULD Unisys file such a lawsuit? I bring this up because I’ve heard that in those countries, software patents aren’t very enforceable. And so if they did file suit there, AND THEY LOST, then that would set a precedent and effectively nullify their patent in that country. And then perhaps all the people continuing to blindly pay “licensing” fees to this company would feel free to stop paying! Sounds kind of risky to me.
    Thoughts from any of Dave’s fine readers and friends? 🙂 (By the way, I think it’s also interesting to note that I had a friend who worked for Unisys back in the early 90’s, and she said that at the time the company was close to bankruptcy. As soon as this little LZW thing started, seems Unisys was no longer struggling. Is there a connection there?)
    Here’s their information page, by the way:

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