JPEG Patent Becoming A Battleground

In a move reminiscent of Unisys’ attempts to assert its rights over the GIF image compression standard, battle lines are being drawn in the fight over the JPEG file format.

Late last week, Austin, Texas-based Forgent Networks flexed its legal muscle saying that it wants to begin collecting royalties for the widely-used lossy compression technique for color images.

The video conferencing company said it has “the sole and exclusive right to use and license all the claims under the ‘672 patent that implement JPEG in all ‘fields of use’ except in the satellite broadcast business.”

And those so called “fields of use?” Pretty much everything connected to the Internet: digital cameras, digital still image devices, personal digital assistants (PDA’s), cellular telephones that download images, browsers, digital camcorders with a still image function, scanners and other devices used to compress, store, manipulate, print or transmit digital images.

Now comes word that the company is in talks with media conglomerate Sony Corp. to be the licensee of the royalties. According to SEC documents, Sony shelled out $15 million to Forgent for the licensing rights. Not a bad deal for Forgent, which reported a mere $22 million in revenue in its latest quarter.

“We wanted to ensure the investment community and the general public are clear about the terms of our valuable JPEG data compression technology, one of the many technologies we have in our patent portfolio,” Forgent chairman and CEO Richard Snyder said in a statement. “We are in ongoing discussions with other manufacturers of digital still cameras, printers, scanners and other products that use JPEG technology for licensing opportunities.”

The JPEG patent No. 4,698,672 was originally issued to San Jose, Calif.-based Compression Labs (formerly VTEL). The company filed for the patent in 1986 but never collected royalties. Forgent acquired the company, technology and the patent in a 1997 acquisition of Compression Labs.

Which, for some, raises the question of the legitimacy of the licensing process considering the company began looking to collect only after the file format became an industry standard.

Former patent attorney and now Linux programmer, Steve Young, says it’s only a matter of time before major chunks of what the open source community relies on turns out to be patented and owned by non-too-friendly people.

“The problem is that people tend to think of patents in much the same way that they think of copyrights. With copyrights, if a developer creates something without reference to the work of others, that developer is free and clear of other’s copyrights, and can make it freely available. Not so with patents. A developer may create a new technology (PNG, Ogg Vorbis, etc), and that developer may choose to not patent it, but that technology is not free and clear of patents unless nobody has patented anything that is used in any part of the technology. If any part of your “new” idea has been thought of before, you’re not clear of patent issues. Given the sheer number of software patents being filed and issued, given the incredibly broad claims that are being allowed, and given the fact that you don’t have access to what patents are pending in the patent office (generally for a few years) just waiting to pop up, nobody can back up a statement such as, ‘I developed this, and it is patent-free.’ I truly wish it were otherwise.”

The JPEG controversy harkens back to the December 1994 battle over the GIF file format when CompuServe Inc. and Unisys told developers they would have to pay a license fee in order to continue to use technology.

There was harsh reaction and confusion on the part of the companies. In the end, GIF was extended by new file formats, but not before the patent that caused so much debate expired.

Still, Forgent said its pursuit of royalties for JPEG is legitimate. The company has four years before its patent runs out.

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