Why there are no GIF files on GNU web pages

There are no GIFs on the GNU web site because of the patents (Unisys and IBM) covering the LZW compression algorithm which is used in making GIF files. These patents make it impossible to have free software to generate GIF format. They also apply to the compress program, which is why GNU does not use it or its format.

Both Unisys and IBM applied for their patents in 1983, which means they will now expire in the year 2003. Until then, anyone who releases a free program for making GIF files is likely to be sued. We don't know any reason to think that the patent owners would lose these lawsuits.

If we released such a program, Unisys and IBM might think it wiser (for public relations reasons) not to sue a charity like the FSF. They could instead sue the users of the program, including the companies who redistribute GNU software. We feel it would not be responsible behavior for us to set up this situation.

Many people think that Unisys has given permission for distributing free software to make GIF format. Unfortunately that is not what Unisys has actually done. Here is what Unisys actually says about the matter:

No license or license fees are required for non-commercial, not-for-profit GIF-based applications or for non-commercial, not-for-profit GIF-freeware, so long as the LZW capability provided is only for GIF. However, a license is required if freeware is incorporated into, or sold or distributed with a commercial or for-profit product, introduced in 1995 [or later], or enhancements of products that were introduced prior to 1995.

Unfortunately, this doesn't permit free software, only semi-free software (18k characters) which cannot be used in a free operating system such as GNU. It also does not permit at all the use of LZW for other purposes such as compression of files. This is why we had to develop GNU zip as a replacement for compress.

Commercial redistribution of free software is very important, and we want the GNU system as a whole to be redistributed commercially. This means we can't add a GIF-generating program to GNU, not under the Unisys terms.

The Free Software Foundation is a non-commercial, non-profit organization, so strictly speaking the income from our sales of CD-ROMs is not ``profit''. Perhaps this means we could include a GIF program on our CD-ROM and claim to be acting within the scope of the Unisys permission--or perhaps not. But since we know that other redistributors of GNU would be unable to include it, doing this would not be very useful.

Shortly after Unisys made its announcement, when the net in general was reassured thinking that Unisys had given permission for free GIF-generating software, we wrote to the Unisys legal department asking for clarification of these issues. We did not receive a response.

Even if Unisys really did give permission for free software to generate GIFs, we would still have to deal with the IBM patent. Both the IBM and the Unisys patents cover the same ``invention''--the LZW compression algorithm. (This could reflect an error on the part of the US Patent and Trademark Office, which is famous for incompetence and poor judgment.)

Decoding GIFs is a different issue. The Unisys and IBM patents are both written in such a way that they do not apply to a program which can only uncompress LZW format and cannot compress. Therefore we can and will include support for displaying GIF files in GNU software.

Given this situation, we could still include GIF files in our web pages if we wanted to. Many other people would be happy to generate them for us, and we would not be sued for having GIF files on our server.

But we feel that if we can't distribute the software to enable people to generate GIF files, then we should not have other people run such software for us. Besides, if we can't provide software in GNU to generate GIF files, we have to recommend an alternative. We ourselves should use the alternative that we recommend.

A further issue is that the LZW patents--and software patents in general--are an offense against the freedom of programmers generally, and all programmers need to work together against software patents.

So even if we could find a solution to enable the free software community to generate GIFs, that isn't really a solution, not for the problem as a whole. The solution is switching to another format and not using GIF any more.

Therefore, we don't use GIF, and we hope you won't use it either.

For more information about the GIF patent problems, see the League for Programming Freedom GIF page. Through that page you can find more information about the problem of software patents in general.


Copyright (C) 1997 Free Software Foundation, Inc., 59 Temple Place - Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111, USA