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From: (Dean Anderson)
Newsgroups: gnu.announce
Subject: LPF Statement on the GIF controversy
Date: 13 Jan 1995 13:36:13 -0500
Organization: GNUs Not Usenet
Lines: 115
Distribution: gnu
Message-ID: <>

      [ Please repost this wherever you think is appropriate! ]

Until now, most computer professionals and companies have ignored the
problem of software patents.  The GIF format for graphical images was
adopted widely on the net, despite the Unisys patent covering the LZW
data compression algorithm.  The patent dates to 1985, but its
enforcement has been carried out with private threats; most victims
are afraid to talk about it.  Now the patent has shown its teeth.

For a few days, the Internet community was shaking with anger at the
surprise demand to pay license fees for the use of GIF format.

It turns out that the license being offered today is only for
Compuserve users.  Compuserve accepted an offer from Unisys that they
couldn't refuse.  Compuserve users can accept this offer now, or face
Unisys later on their own.  The rest of us don't have a choice--we get
to face Unisys when they decide it's our turn.  So much trouble from
just one software patent.

There are now over ten thousand software patents in the US, and
several thousand more are issued each year.  Each one may be owned by,
or could be bought by, a grasping company whose lawyers carefully plan
to attack people at their most vulnerable moments.  Of course, they
couch the threat as a "reasonable offer" to save you miserable years
in court.  "Divide and conquer" is the watchword: pursue one group at
a time, while advising the rest of us to relax because we are in no
danger today.

Software patents may not seem like an urgent problem until you find
one aimed at you.  We all have other fires to fight, and most
developers have hoped that the patents would never blaze up.

In an ironic way, Unisys has done us a favor--by showing that the
problem is too serious to ignore.  What people first feared, could
just as well have happened.  Each of the thousands of software patents
has the potential to devastate a segment of the community, both
software developers and users.  There will be more nasty surprises.
They are part of a system.

Unisys has given us a chance to work together to change the
system--rather than waiting to be sued one by one for this patent or
that.  We can win the fight against software patents, if we speak loud
and clear against them.

What can people do?

* Express your disapproval to Unisys by writing a letter to its CEO.
Tell him what you think of his company's actions:

    James Unruh
    UNISYS Corp.
    PO Box 500
    Blue Bell, PA 19424
    fax: 215-986-6850

Please use snail mail--a physical pile of letters is more impressive,
psychologically, than a big file of email.  Keep it short--ten lines
is enough.  Don't spend hours composing your letter; there's no need.
But do write it in your own words, because sending a form letter
written by someone else is not impressive.

Make it clear that the usual excuses--"We're just exercising our
property rights; look how reasonable we are being (compared to what we
_could_ have done)"--won't wash with you.

Avoid saying anything nasty that would give Unisys a chance to paint
itself as the victim.  Cold condemnation is more powerful than flames.

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

* Don't sign a license--stop using GIF.  The World Wide Web consortium
at MIT will probably be coordinating the move away from GIF, and
offering advice and assistance.

   See `'.

* Join the League for Programming Freedom.  The League is a
membership-based organization whose aim is to bring back the freedom
to write software.  The League says that no one should be able to
dictate what kinds of programs you can write.

You can contact the LPF by email to,
or look at its Web pages at `'.

** Note: the recent license demand came in the name of Compuserve; but
the impetus for it came from Unisys.

Compuserve developed the GIF format many years ago, not knowing there
was a patent on LZW.  (Most programmers have no idea what patents
their programs are vulnerable to--there are too many patents to keep
track of.)  When Unisys threatened to sue them, Compuserve had to give
in to Unisys's demands.  Compuserve arranged to be allowed to offer
Compuserve users a sublicense, but the "offer" was formulated in a way
that was tantamount to an ultimatum.

Compuserve may bear responsibility for some of the details of how this
was handled, but the main responsibility falls on Unisys.  It is
Unisys that claims the power to dictate what kinds of software you can
write.  Unisys decided to use the power for aggression; Unisys forced
Compuserve to participate.

Dean Anderson                                     
League for Programming Freedom

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