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Unisys demands $5k licence fee for use of GIFs

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Greedy bean-counters at Unisys are proposing to milk great swathes of the Web for $5,000 a pop in licence fees. The company's scheme, which came to light in the last couple of days, is effectively a souped-up reprise of the its 1994-95 attempt to enforce patent rights concerning GIF files. Unisys owns the patent to the LZW compression algorithm, which is used in GIF files. CompuServe discovered the patent last time around shortly after standardising on the GIF format, but the position was regularised then by CompuServe taking out a licence from Unisys. But this time Unisys seems to be after bigger bucks, from what appears to be practically anybody using GIF format graphics or other types that use LZW. The latest bid is wide-ranging, but looks difficult to enforce. Unisys is asking for a $5,000 licence fee from company Intranet sites and what it calls Billboard Web sites. The latter it describes as a site "fully open to the general public without cost or other consideration (that is, no restricted access or user cost of any kind or form)." So apparently Unisys wishes to enforce the patent for limited access company Intranets, commercial Web sites and non-commercial ones. Unisys does seem to make a kind of partial exception for use of graphics generated by software from developers who already have a licence, but it's still restrictive: "If you use any of the types of images specified above [GIF, TIFF-LZW, PDF-LZW images or other LZW graphical formats] on your Web site that you received from an unlicensed software developer or service, you should have a license from Unisys to use the LZW patent. Or even if the developer or service provider has a license, but it doesn't cover your use of the particular application you received, you should have a license from Unisys to use the LZW patent..." The company doesn't however make it clear either how you're supposed to identify whether or not your GIF is hot, or how it proposes to determine this in order to collect its fees. Rather than generating money for the company, the net effect is more likely to be to expose it to widespread loathing, and to trigger widespread abandonment of formats using LZW.The move has already generated the aptly-named burnallgifs.org ®

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