Friday, October 28, 2005

Who Owns Your Images?

For a long time, people worried about using GIF images because the compression technique used to store them had been patented by Unisys. The Free Software Foundation even banned the use of GIFs on FSF and GNU websites, and encouraged others to do the same. If you examine the image of the gnu on that webpage, you'll notice that it is in a JPEG format.

All that's old is new again. A company called Forgent holds patent no. 4,698,672, which it claims covers JPEG images. They recently extracted a licensing deal from RIM, now claiming that they have earned over $100M in royalties for this patent. A lawsuit filed by Forgent against about 40 PC companies including Apple Computer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM is currently under way. They claim that about 1000 other companies also infringe their patent. Microsoft has filed for a declaratory judgement against Forgent, seeking to invalidate the patent.

So, the Internet's two most popular image formats, GIF and JPEG, are unsafe. That leaves PNG as the only somewhat-widely supported format to fall back on if you want to avoid patent encumberence. How long until a company finds a long-forgotten patent that covers some idea embodied in PNG, and decides to submarine that as well?


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