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Tony Mobily [opinions]

GIF is NOW finally free - for real, with a final Unisys joke

fsmsh.com/1772 [free] [gif] [unisys]

I am sure a lot of you remember the great "GIF fiasco": more than a decade ago, Unisys decided to make money out of the most used image file format on the Internet: the GIF format. To be more precise, Unisys announced that they would go after developers of programs able to load and save GIF files (never mind the fact that even back then there was plenty of free software which wouldn't have been able to pay).

To make the short story shorter, the PNG file was invented as a reaction to Unisys' move; although it was never wildly successful, PNG did manage to make Unisys's threat very much irrelevant. Unisys took their time, but eventually realised that if they had seriously sued people over the GIF patent, the days of the GIF format would be over.

In the pre-SCO era, people were outraged and wondered if Unisys's CEO had gone insane (to me, he just looked like he had a very, very low IQ and a very big problem managing his company's finance and marketing). In our post-SCO era, we are just glad it didn't sue IBM in the hope that the Goliath company would get annoyed enough to buy out the moody David.

Anyway, things went well: PNG was created, Unisys' share price today looks pitiful (karma, anybody?), and people still happily use GIF files everywhere.

Dr. Jekyll

Not many people noticed that in just a few days the GIF format will definitely be free - forever. The GNU web site has a page on the GIF format. At the bottom of the page, you can see:

  1. We were able to search the patent databases of the USA, Canada, Japan, and the European Union. The Unisys patent expired on 20 June 2003 in the USA, in Europe it expired on 18 June 2004, in Japan the patent expired on 20 June 2004 and in Canada it expired on 7 July 2004. The U.S. IBM patent expired 11 August 2006, The Software Freedom Law Center says that after 1 October 2006, there will be no significant patent claims interfering with employment of the GIF format..

The first of October 2006 is just about around the corner. So... well, it looks like the nightmare is definitely, without any doubt, over. I personally don't think that IBM (the holder of the last GIF patent) would ever sue anybody for using GIF, especially after investing several billion dollars on GNU/Linux and showing their declared friendliness towards free software (which would be directly affected by a law suit). But you never know with patents.

Mr. Hyde

However, if you really think it's over, and that you will never ever have to worry about GIF ever again... well, let me tell you, you are wrong. The nightmare is far from over. The nightmare is just about to start. I shivered when I saw this page. To me, it was absolutely devastating!

It says:

Unisys Corporation holds and has patents pending on a number of improvements on the inventions claimed in the above-expired patents. Information on these improvement patents and terms under which they may be licensed can be obtained by contacting the following: [...].

Oh my... Unisys has been improving the GIF format, without telling anybody what the improvements are! I honestly don't think the world can survive without those improvements. I am pretty sure Cheryl Tartler, the person dealing with sending out those improvements is swamped with requests and cannot send them out fast enough! In fact, I am pretty confident that's all she does all day long: sending Unisys's improvements to people once they've signed an NDA and paid their licensing fees. I am pretty sure this will help be an immense help to the downward trend of Unisys' shares. Millions, billions will come!

Err... OK, just in case somebody at Unisys is listening: "Hello! I am only joking!". It may look obvious, but you never know...

Conclusion

Finally, after the first of October, the GIF format will be completely free and nobody will ever be able to say otherwise - not even the most obstinate free software advocate. This will hopefully stop people complaining about us using GIF images here at Free Software Magazine for our banner ads...

And yes, this is a hint!

License

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