For those of you who don't read Slashdot, there's a post at the moment which suggests that Unisys are likely to be cracking down on all Web sites that carry gifs, whether they were generated by licensed software or not. Before you fall for the hype, I felt I should point out some slightly more sober truths about this rumour.

  1. The Unisys page that was used as the source for this post *actually* says that if you are using gif creation software made by a company that does not have a license to provide LZW compression, or you are using an unlicensed copy of their software, then you should pay a license to Unisys ($5,000 or $7,500 depending upon the type of license).

  2. If, however, you are running a licensed copy of a program like Photoshop, then you are completely within your rights to use as many gifs on your site as you wish. (Unisys also say that "Unisys does not require licensing, or fees to be paid, for non-commercial, non-profit GIF-based applications, including those for use on the on-line services." ( http://lpf.ai.mit.edu/Patents/Gif/unisys.html ) This means that free applications that create gifs, such as The Gimp may also create "legal" gifs. Check your software supplier's license if you are particularly worried about this.)

  3. If you have gifs on your site that someone else created with licensed software you are not breaking their licensing agreement.

  4. Even if you did have unlicensed gifs on your site, it would prove *extremely* difficult for Unisys to actually prove this. The gif standard does include space for header details in the gif code, but it is quite easily modifiable.

  5. Finally, as the Unisys patent is a US patent, based on a flaw in the US patent system, I cannot see that this would be enforceable outside the States.

So these points aside, the action by Unisys raises some interesting issues. Will an increased level of hype surrounding this issues result in a quicker adoption of the PNG graphic format as standard? Are we going to see the creation of even more "standards"? How would Unisys go about enforcing something like this - especially outside America?

Of course, many people are up in arms about this latest news. When Unisys first forced Compuserve to introduce licensing for all programs that create gifs there was an outcry that died down pretty quickly. It looks like we are starting to see the same reaction again. (Check out the Burn All Gifs Day Web site).

There is indeed some cause for concern. If I were an American, I would be pretty upset about a patent law that allows for the patenting of common calculations. The situation also raises some pretty scary issues about the possibility of other patent holders of commonly used algorithms introducing licensing schemes. One group looking at these issues is the League for Programming Freedom.

I would be interested to hear the thoughts of other evolting people on this - but remember, this is not something to panic over. The Slashdot piece has already provoked a storm of well meaning, but misguided opinions. Be sure to read up on the issue a little before doing anything strange like removing all gifs from your site - but by all means consider beginning to introduce PNG's into your work instead.