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Will GIFs Be Free in 2003? 48

Ark42 asks: "Did the Unisys patent on LZW expire back on Dec 10, 2002? Does that mean we can all write GIF software royalty free now? From what I can gather, Unisys only lists patent number 4,558,302 for covering LZW, which was filed on Jun 20, 1983 and issued on Dec 10, 1985. According to this site patents filed after Jun 7, 1995 last 20 years from the file date, and patents on or before then last 17 years from the issue date. That means the LZW patent expired on Dec 10, 2002. Am I missing anything?" A deadline of 2003 was given in this earlier Slashdot article. Assuming .GIFs can't follow in the footsteps of Mickey Mouse, will the popular image format now be "web safe"?
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Will GIFs Be Free in 2003?

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  • by kyz ( 225372 ) on Sunday January 19, 2003 @07:58PM (#5115834) Homepage
    US Patent 4,558,302 [] was filed on the 20th June 1983. Under the laws at that time, it expires exactly 20 years after being filed.

    • No, it has already expired. The original post is correct. Twenty years from application date is the law now. Before mid-1995 it was 17 years from issue. This thing is already dead.

      Ok, IANAL, but I am the holder of a patent applied for in 1994 and issued in 1996. I was VERY aware of the change in patent lifetime back then. This one is GONE. :D
    • The original posting is correct, indeed. What needs to be added is that for patents issued after June (?) 1995, but filed prior to that, you may choose between 20 years after filing or 17 years from grant.

      User -kyz is confused by the patent law everywhere else in the world, where a patent lasts up to 20 years from filing.

      With the change of patent law in 1995 by the US, they finally decided to harmonise patent terms with the rest of the world.

      A small step for a human, but a giant leap for such a conservative country.

      • June 20, 2003 does seem to be correct, but that is still very close! I had somebody point out to me that there was an overlap period when the law was changed from issue+17 to file+20 where some old patents would get whichever of the two dates was longer, and in this case file+20 is longer, so LZW isnt free until June 20, 2003.
        Mark your calendars!
  • So what? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by kruetz ( 642175 )
    Okay, GIFs are good for cartoon-type images, but PNGs really are starting to become more common-place. Probably the only people who'll continue to use GIFs are those who were using them despite the patents and probably couldn't care less. Most people who were worried about the patents would have moved to some other format (probably PNG) and I doubt they'll see much of an incentive to move back.

    Silly patent-holders on a widely-available image format. There are much more profitable things to be patented (human birth probably isn't patented, and with really good lawyers you could probably dismiss prior 'art' as pornography or something)
    • Re:So what? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kyz ( 225372 )
      You're forgetting that it's the LZW compression algorithm that's patented, not the GIF image format or the images per-say.

      And, when you look at it, LZW is actually quite a nice algorithm to use. It offers incredibly high speed compression and decompression, but performs better than run-length encoding. In case you hadn't noticed, many computer games use decompressed-on-the-fly graphics in their games. While it's no use for video and audio compression compared to lossy algorithims, patent-free LZW would be useful to game developers as it could improve on their often abysmal realtime compression/decompression. Many game houses are still using RLE compression. Personally, I'd recommend LZO [] rather than LZW, but that's just me.
      • Fair enough, I was mainly concerned with the GIF problems, because that seems to be the major issue.

        Do you know how bzip or the new rar (v3) compares to LZW? I know firsthand that rar v3 is a huge improvement over zip.

        Also, how does LZO stand-up and what's the deal (GPLed?, ...)

        • Re:So what? (Score:4, Informative)

          by kyz ( 225372 ) on Monday January 20, 2003 @04:33AM (#5117577) Homepage
          bzip and rar are both high-performance archivers. They're not intended to work at any high speed. LZW is a high speed algorithm intended to compress quickly rather than compress well. LZO is also a high-speed algorithm, but it compresses slightly better than LZW, and the decompression speed of LZO is far faster than LZW.

          bzip2 (note the 2) uses simply burrows-wheeler block sorting with move to front compression, with huffman as the entropy encoder. It will remain like that forever, and not introduce any more compression algorithms. In fact, bzip (version 1, before bzip2) used arithmetic coding instead of huffman, so it actually produced better compression, but IBM et al have a bunch of patents on arithmetic coding, so bzip2 will never use them until they expire. Block-sorting is a "clever trick" to LZ compression, but it doesn't "scale", i.e. you can't put a better predictive model into it and get better compression, the best you can do is put a better sort algorithm in, and we all know that sorting is pretty much at the limits already. RAR on the other hand uses a whole load of algorithms, including Dmitry Shkarin's PPMII which is a statistical compressor that outperforms pretty much anything (at the cost of being very slow). It also has a range of "multimedia" filters, i.e. special processing for images, audio and executables that make the data easier to compress when the real compression is used. RAR isn't open source. If you want something that stands up to it that is open-source, check out 7-zip. bzip2 is not going to get better any time soon.
      • LZO is even worse than GIF in terms of IP entanglement.

        I think the GPL is nice and all, but trying to force it on people by using formats that cannot be used with non-GPL software freely is no better than what Microsoft does with propriatary protocols.

        I want Open Source to win because it's *better*, not because some jerk is trying to use nasty tactics against people using an alternative.
        • The GPL applies to things you copyright (code), not file formats. I didn't look at the page, but unless they patented the algorithm (unlikely) then it's hardly more IP-entangled than LZW or GIFs. You can always re-implement a piece of GPL software if you don't want to be bound by the terms of the license.
          • Hmm...that's true. I didn't bother to think through the statement which the author had on his page:

            LZO and the LZO algorithms and implementations are distributed under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL) { auf Deutsch }. Special licenses for commercial and other applications are available by contacting the author.

            The bit about the algorithms is presumably bogus, then.
    • Re:So what? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by McCarrum ( 446375 )
      Why remove choice? GIF's are just fine, as are PNG. For those of us who are FORCED (for whatever valid and/or stupid reason) to support non-PNG browsers, GIFs are still the best choice.

      IMHO, PNG *is* the way to go. However, this does not rule out GIF automatically.
    • Actually, IE has a strange "feature" that change slightly some colors of PNG images (even 24 bit pictures in a 24 bits display !). I had to switch back to GIF for one of my site so that the images color matched the page color...
  • by pb ( 1020 ) on Sunday January 19, 2003 @07:59PM (#5115842)
    Provided they aren't .GIFs of Mickey Mouse []!
  • It's in the name. G(NU)IF.
    It would be very nice to openly use Gifs, especially considering the known issues [] when using transparent PNGs in IE.
    • by damiam ( 409504 )
      IE supports just as much transparency for PNG as it does for GIF. It's just that it was designed for GIF's, which only use one level of transparency, so it can't handle PNG's extra levels. It's quite easy, however, to create a PNG with one-bit transparency, and such a PNG would be superior to a similar GIF in every way.
  • June 2003 (Score:5, Informative)

    by \\ ( 118555 ) on Sunday January 19, 2003 @08:38PM (#5116018) Homepage
    According to ImageMagick's [] file formats page, the LZW patent expires in June 2003.
    • Good. Maybe those motherless fucks at ESRI will quit assraping cartographers for a license to LZW compressed TIFFs in ArcInfo, those moneygrubbers. Price that shit out sometime. It's horrid. A 300 dpi TIFF of a 22x34" document is not for the faint of heart, or disk.
  • ....but its been slow to take hold.

    Why? App support and developer inertia.

    Photoshop 7 still has crappy PNG support.

    IE still doesn't support alpha right.

    And web developers are still upset that PNG didn't include animation. To them, GIF is good enough, and nobody has hassled their site yet. Why should they change to something less compatible with less features?
    • > And web developers are still upset that PNG didn't include animation.
      > To them, GIF is good enough, and nobody has hassled their site yet.
      > Why should they change to something less compatible with less features?

      I don't know what web developers you're talking about, but I certainly don't feel that way. My latest site uses nothing but PNGs and JPEGs. I don't know of anyone still using animated GIFs except for badly-designed e-commerce sites. Animated GIFs are _so_ last millennium, you know. :) If you want something animated these days, most designers seem to use Flash.

      FYI - if you're creating PNGs from Photoshop, you should then compress them further with 'pngcrush' (Google to find it) - saves more space! When I changed all my GIFs to PNGs and then used pngcrush on them, they shrunk by about 40% or so. Schweet!
      • Is PNGOUT [] by Ken Silverman. Best kept PNG secret out there. It only works on Windows (console), but it almost always lets me squeeze a few more bytes out than PNGCrush.
        • Wow - thanks for mentioning this! I got it and did a little test:

          38,247 trek-distance2.gif original GIF
          56,857 trek-distance2-ps.png first PNG converted by Photoshop 7
          34,276 trek-distance2-pc.png compressed with pngcrush
          31,531 trek-distance2-po.png compressed with pngout

          That's a pretty good compression even over pngcrush, much less over photoshop. Plus that pngcrush one was done with '-brute', to get the absolute best compression
          it's capable of.

          Not only that, but the pngout executable is less than 10% the size of the pngcrush executable. That's some sweet coding. He apparently uses Watcom C - I've asked the author for the source to see if I can get it to work with gcc. It's a console app, so if I can get it to work in gcc/win32 (I'm using Bloodshed's Dev-C++ package), then it should work pretty well with anything else, I'm hoping.

          What IS it with Photoshop's crappy PNG compression? I'm using v7.0.1 (which, I must say, is way, WAY buggy.). *shrug*
          • What IS it with Photoshop's crappy PNG compression? I'm using v7.0.1 (which, I must say, is way, WAY buggy.). *shrug*

            imagemagick seems to have the same crappy png compression, unless i need to do something other than "convert image.gif image.png", using -dither or not..
    • I believe there was a MNG format that is essentially PNG with the ability to create animated PNGs. it unfortunately came out about 6 months after PNG was rushed out the door, as a result people already pissed all over PNG and refused to hear about MNG format. it's out there, and it's useable.
  • GIF (Score:2, Funny)

    by kruetz ( 642175 )
    GIF stands for GNU Is Free
    GNU stands for GIFs Never Used

    the cases IS, FREE, NEVER and USED are left as exercises for the motivated reader.
  • by mcgroarty ( 633843 ) <brian.mcgroarty@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Sunday January 19, 2003 @09:01PM (#5116133) Homepage
    I'd like to propose the idea of a mass Unisys mooning day to show the old dinosaur what we think of obvious patent abuse.

    When June '03 rolls around, how could we get as many asses in .gif format presented to Unisys? Someone with a lot of bandwidth wanna register '' or '' for this purpose?

  • by ajuda ( 124386 ) on Sunday January 19, 2003 @09:08PM (#5116169)
    Isn't it odd that the US government keeps extending copyright (now past 80 years), and patents are only valid for around 20 years? I mean, isn't it a lot more expensive to research a technology than it is to write a few pages of text?
    • Don't give them any ideas....

    • Yes, of course, BUT...

      A patent is 'hard'. That is, the form of the invention is concrete and not open to much interpretation. Either it's the same technology or it isn't. A creative person will always find a way to do the same thing in another (possibly better?) way. This makes patents useless in the long run, from the standpoint of a money grubbing board of executives.

      A copyright, on the other hand, is very subjective. If another company comes out with a black-colored cartoon mouse character (please don't interpret that as a racist remark!), Disney could take them to court and argue for years about how they 'stole' Mickey's design and how they're trying to use their character's popularity to 'confuse' people and make a profit. There's a lot of room for legal bullshit here, with the company who can afford to keep the laywers on retainer the longest coming out on top... ...hence, trying to preserve a copyright indefinately is likely to be a finantially worthwhile endevour!
      • I do not see your arguments as a reason for this. We have to go way back to the end of the 19th century (or even earlier) when patent and copyright law came to life.

        The idea of copyright is that a poor writer/painter does something very avantgarde and is misunderstood by his generation. Long extension of copyright provides his kin with a nice sum of money, nontheless.

        Patents are granted for practial, ready to implement ideas (well, most of the time and within about 5 years at least).

        Very crudely stated, that's (one of many) the actual reason.

        By the way, just read that Lawrence Lessig proposes here [] (registration required) to provide a system like the patent system for copyright as well.

        A good idea, but in my opinion, duration should be limited.

        Unfortunately, the Berne convention would have to be modified; it says that there should be no formal requirements to get copyright. Modification will be pretty tough, a lot of countries are involved.

    • anyone can flagrantly disregard copyrights (in computer programs, at least) by clean-room reverse engineering and re-implementing your super-new compression algorithm from scratch in their own way and style. You can't do jack shit unless you show they actually stole your code (which they didn't, they only took a description of the idea that your code implements, and made their own implementation of that idea).

      However, with patents, you have absolute ownership of ideas, not your implementations per-say. This gives you incredible control and allows you to wield incredible power. This allows you to control entire markets, rather than simply keep thieves at bay.

      Nobody is really lobbying for longer patents because everyone recognises how much of a minefield they are. Even IBM and Microsoft have had to pay out huge amounts to patent-wielding shysters. Only pharmacutical companies want longer patents, because unlike the computer industry where you can sell your software the day you get your patent, pharmacuticals can't profit from their drug patents until they go through 20 years of drug approval tests.

      Whereas with copyrights, there are many greedy media companies leaning on their increasingly aged laurels.
    • only valid for 20 years.... Jesus, Copyright should be no more than 20years, hell I can't think of anything I done 10 years ago that you can't have for free[or last week for that matter]

      patents no more than 5 if you can't establish a market for your idea in 5 years then someone else should be given the opportunity, and companies that just sit on patents are evil.

Long computations which yield zero are probably all for naught.