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RealTime IT News

Webmasters Push for Switch from GIF

Webmasters and Web developers who are unhappy with the current licensing requirements for the GIF image file format are highlighting their cause by setting aside Friday as "Burn All GIFs Day."

The GIF image format is reliant on LZW technology, developed by Unisys Corp. in 1985. Unisys owns the patent for the technology and charges a license fee for developers using the GIF format.

Web professionals are protesting a change made in August to Unisys' (UIS) license policy, which states that those who create or post images using the GIF format must pay a one-time $5000 license fee.

Organizers have started a campaign against the fee by creating banner ads urging Webmasters to eliminate GIFs from their sites and using word-of-mouth to spread the word against Unisys. Some protesters are going so far as to physically burn paper copies of GIF files outside Unisys' California office Friday.

Protest organizers said the issue is about open standards, not specifically the GIF format, which is slowly being replaced by other image formats such as the Joint Photographic Experts Group, or JPEG, and Portable Network Graphics, otherwise known as PNG files.

"(The protest) calls attention to the issue of software patents and that patents in the Internet industry are a kind of legal arms race that threatens the future of the Internet," said Don Marti, Webmaster for BurnAllGIFs.org.

"There's no point in trying to get Unisys to change its policy on an obsolete format. We can eliminate GIFs by calling attention to superior formats."

Unisys said that the issue has been overblown because most developers are already covered by the license. Software firms including Adobe (ADBE), Corel (CORL), Macromedia (MACR), NetObjects (NETO) and Visio (VSIO) already have license agreements with Unisys. Company spokesman Oliver Pitcher said users of those software packages need not worry about the license fee, said Oliver Picher, a Unisys spokesman.

"Altogether, there are about 10,000 products that are covered by the license," said Picher. "The bigger issue is that the folks behind the effort are within the open source software movement. They believe that software should not be patentable."

"We are not going to make GIF open standard, because we need to protect our technology."

GIFs are still widely used, especially in animated graphics, although there is a push for open standard JPG and PNG formats.

The PNG format was created specifically in response to the licensed GIF format, according to Greg Roelofs, spokesman for the PNG Development Group.

"It is a superset of GIF in almost all respects," he said, noting that PNG supports better color resolution and transparency than GIFs do.

"It also happens to be completely free." The only problem, Roelofs said, is that PNG does not support animation.

As for "Burn All GIFs Day," Roelofs is in favor of a switch to open source software, although he will not take part in the actual demonstrations.

"It's not that I disapprove; I just see [the protests] as more of a PR/marketing kind of thing, and I feel that I can better serve by continuing to improve PNG applications and helping to educate folks about PNG through the Web site, newsgroups and e-mail."

Marti said that the protest is done solely to spur the growth of the Internet, not attack a specific company.

"It's not the Web vs. Unisys," he said. "But if we're going to turn the Web into a patent arms race, no one's going to have any fun. Open source really drives the development of the Web."