The Real Unisys GIF Deal
According to Mark Starr, General Patent and Technology Counsel for Unisys, if the GIFs on your Web site were created with software that is licensed by Unisys, you are fine. Nobody at Unisys is going to try to get $5000 or even $0.50 out of you. Period.
And, Starr added, virtually all of the major, heavily-used, commercial graphics programs from what he calls "reputable companies" (e.g. Adobe, Corel, JASC, Macromedia, Microsoft, AOL/Netscape, etc.) are licensed by Unisys. He said that even the "included" software packaged with most scanners and digital cameras is licensed. Use it, create all the GIFs you want with it, post those GIFs to your heart's content, and relax. Unisys will not come after you.
And it's a big but, too. If you use GIF graphics created with certain freeware programs, and your chosen program uses LZW compression to create GIFs without a license to use it, you may be violating a Unisys patent. How would Unisys know what software you used to create a particular GIF? Starr says they'll ask you, and, he says, "...assuming we made an inquiry, we would expect a Web site operator to tell us what he used." I did not ask, "What if someone creates a GIF using licensed software that came with a scanner, then modifies that image with the GIMP or another freeware program?" I really didn't want to know the answer to this question; all of my GIFs have passed through at least one Unisys-licensed program at some point, so if I am asked I can honestly say that they were created (at least partially) in accordance with the Unisys patent.
I specifically asked Starr about the GIMP. He had not heard of it, but said, "We give hundreds of licenses away to non-commercial, non-profit entities. We do not give our technology away to for-profit entities." The rub here is that if you use the GIMP - which was created by a non-profit group - to create GIF graphics for a non-commercial site, you're probably fine, but if you use it to create GIF graphics for a Web site that is intended to make a profit, Unisys wants a cut of the action. How much? E-mail them and ask. And if you want to write a program that incorporates LZW compression technology in its code base, you'd better ask, because you'll be in trouble if you don't - and you may be in trouble even if you do, according to these folks, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish we won't get into today.
Do not expect Unisys to release LZW technology under the GPL anytime soon. Unisys is not a free software booster. Starr said, "We do not use freeware in our own products as a matter of policy. It could violate someone's license, it could be trash. Anyone who uses freeware does so at their own risk."
Starr also said, "We have thought of a [GIF patent] giveway, but it's not in the best interests of our shareholders..." He does not believe the potential PR value involved in giving LZW technology away is worth much, either. He said, "We've [given free licenses to] hundreds of non-profit organizations, schools, and governments, but we haven't gotten much good publicity over it."
And, according to Starr, there are plenty of good reasons a company like Unisys should not allow its patented technology to be used for free, even in free software. He specifically described two common situations:
1) A company creates a $200,000 CAD package - then gives away a "free plug-in" that includes LZW. Should not Unisys charge a royalty under these circumstances? Isn't the freeness of the plug-in package that includes LZW somewhat of a sham, possibly made that way specifically to avoid paying royalties to Unisys?
2) A company that sells hardware of some sort (Starr mentioned "Japanese digital camera manufacturers" here) but includes accompanying software "free." Again, to Unisys this freeness is strictly bogus, and they want royalties on the "free" software that comes with the non-free hardware if that software uses LZW technology in any way.
That's Their Story and They're Sticking to It
The stack of e-mails Unisys has gotten this week from Slashdot readers and other free software boosters who disagree with the Unisys GIF patent policy hasn't done much to change Starr's mind. He and Unisys PR dude Oliver Picher both described the e-mail tirades with words like vile, vulgar, obscene, disgusting, and distasteful. Apparently, the dregs of the Open Source Community came out of the woodwork in full force, and, as usual, pissed off the people whose minds they might have had a chance to change if they had exercised a little courtesy.
Those of you who sent those e-mails don't need to apologize. I already did, profusely, on your behalf. And the person to whom I apologized most humbly was not Starr, but Cheryl, the low-paid secretary who had to read all the filth.
Cheryl does not set Unisys policy, and she does not own stock in the company, but she is the person whose job it is to read all the abusive e-mail sent to Unisys via the e-mail address on the relevant corporate Web page. All you do when you send her obscenities is make her - and by extension, her boss, Mark Starr - think that Open Source advocates are crackpots and idiots. But I am going to cut this potential tirade short, because Rob Malda has already given you a similar lecture, Eric S. Raymond has given it, Bruce Perens has given it, and Richard M. Stallman has given it so many times that he probably mumbles it in his sleep.
The Bottom Line
Unisys is unlikely to change its corporate position regarding free software in the near future (especially if they get attacked instead of asked politely) and they have the patent on LZW-compressed GIFs and you don't, so if you're going to use their technology you must play by their rules until or unless software patent laws in the U.S. get a radical makeover. Meanwhile, if you want to use LZW-compressed GIFs on your Intranet or public Web site, and you created them with a Unisys-licensed piece of software, no one from Unisys is going to come around and demand money from you.
And if you plan to create - or have already created - free image-processing software that uses Unisys-patented LZW technology, you might want to ask the company, very politely, for a giveaway license that would cover non-commercial use of your product. I suspect that Mr. Starr (who has final judgement in such matters) might just give you one if you approach him correctly and you manage to convince him that you aren't trying to burn Unisys with some sort of bogus giveaway deal that is really meant to make you or your program's users rich while denying Unisys shareholders the licensing fees that - like it or not - they are legally entitled to collect if you try to earn a profit from your use of their intellectual property.