Unisys/CompuServe GIF Controversy

"They want everything to be free and let's all be friends.
But fortunately, this is not the American way."

-- Unisys patent lawyer Mark Starr, on his company's attempts to
squeeze dough out of Websites that dare to generate GIF images,
The Industry Standard, 25 April 2000 )

The United States LZW patent expired on June 20th, 2003.. According to Unisys, the counterpart Canadian patent expires July 7, 2004, the counterpart patents in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy expire June 18, 2004, and the Japanese counterpart patents expire June 20, 2004.

The rest of this page is therefore dated.

In July 1999, Unisys decided to use its LZW patent against some Web sites that use GIFs. See this August 31st, 1999 Slashdot article for precisions about the intentions of Unisys.

On Burn All GIFs Day "all GIF users will gather at Unisys and burn all their GIF files, freeing the web of this silly patent and this useless, litigious company once and for all. The Unisys/CompuServe GIF Controversy stops now."

On December 29, 1994, the folks who have patent rights for a popular graphics format, the GIF format, decided to try to make money off the fact that the Internet has recently started resembling a marketplace.

The original announcement originated from a spokesperson at CompuServe, who lays out their position: Unisys controls the rights to the Lempel-Ziv-Welch compression technology. CompuServe has entered into an agreement with Unisys in which they agree to encourage any GIF developers who use CompuServe as a distributor to pay a royalty fee to Unisys. For each registered copy of a program that uses the LZW compression technology, the developer is to pay 1.5% of the sale price of the program to CompuServe, or $0.15, whichever is greater. Developers have till the end of January 1995 to sign up. Is this whole controvery anything other than an historical accident?

The Internet community, including the LPF and the EFF, are speaking out against the position taken by Unisys/CompuServe.

It's very important for all of us on the Internet to register our disgust with Unisys and CompuServe. The LPF strongly encourages everyone to send ordinary letters, by postal mail, to

Lawrence A. Weinbach
PO Box 500
Blue Bell, PA 19424
fax: 215-986-6850

Please email a copy of your letter to the League for Programming Freedom at lpf@lpf.ai.mit.edu. We might ask you for permission to publish your letter.

In April 1999, I asked the following two questions to Unisys:

They answered this to the first question:

The basic U.S. patent expires in June, 2003. Variants on the basic LZW patent run for about 20 years and further U.S. applications are pending.

However, their answer to the second question was less precise:

We do not agree or disagree with your statement regarding the relationship between an algorithm and a theorem.

Isn't this typical. To me personally, it is plainly obvious that a software patent essentially amounts to a patent on an algorithm, and that an algorithm has nothing to do with computers, electronics or anything physical. Algorithms predate computers and are a mathematical entity, just like theorems.

My understanding of the answer from Unisys is that they know that if they admit this, then they can't justify software patents to the public and the courts.

(One can argue that theorems and algorithms are not strictly the same thing. This is why I formulated my question with an example of what I meant for practical purposes.)

If you can get better answers from companies that support software patents, I'll be glad to publish them on this site.

-- Pierre Sarrazin, LPF webmaster

Back to LPF Patents page.
Back to LPF home page.