>"They [CompuServe] seem to think that GIF is the greatest thing since free online magazines."

"The announcement by CompuServe and Unisys that users of the GIF image format must register by January 10 and pay a royalty or face lawsuits for their past usage, is the online communications community's equivalent of the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor."

What the hell did I just read? you might be asking yourself. I did too, after discovering this early internet controversy while surfing the web. GIF, if it even needs to be introduced, is an image format released in 1987. If you need more info, Wikipedia has an excellent article. Being so old and a pretty decent image format for the poor Internet speeds at the time, it was quite popular on the web. Used from webcomics to buttons, the image format was nearly universal on the Internet (as it kinda still is). So, who are those other two names, Unisys and CompuServe?


CompuServe plays a surprisingly small role in this controversy than you might expect from the huge backlash they had. CompuServe had a team that worked on GIF led by Steve Wilhite and released it in 1987. Part of the GIF specification at the time was the use of the LZW (Lempel-Ziv-Welch) data compression algorithm that provided losslessness and surprisingly good (for the time) file sizes. What CompuServe was unaware of (this is disputed, read the first link in the Links section) was that LZW had a software patent that extended to 2004. Who held this patent? Well...


Unisys is one of those companies that most people don't know about but are actually quite big, especially back in the 80's. The algorithm "they" patented is U.S. Patent 4021782 which is one of two patents of the algorithm (Wikipedia helps here). Patent stuff really annoys me so I'm just going to stop talking about it. So, having this patent, Unisys wants to cash in. They "decide" (please read the first article in the Links section, it's very good) on getting a royalty payment from all software developers using LZW compression. Users on the internet, as users do, confuse this and say that Unisys is asking for ANYONE who uses GIF to pay licensing fees. This is not the case, no server administrator or GIF uploader ever needed to pay licensing fees, only developers of software using LZW. A bit of a nothingburger.

Should you burn all GIFs?

While I do really like the design of APNGs, GIFs are very ubiquitous and easy to implement (they were created in the 80's for god's sake). Since they are easy to implement they enjoy quite a lot of support throughout the browser space. So, if you had to go for one I'd pick GIF, especially since relative patents have expired.

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