GIF Info (long and opinionated)

Subject: GIF Info (long and opinionated)
From: Linda Sherman <linsherm -at- GTE -dot- NET>
Date: Fri, 18 Sep 1998 18:35:26 -0400

Fellow Whirlers:

Several of you have questioned my assertion that you may wind up paying
a licensing fee to use GIF on commercial websites.

I'm not a lawyer, so I could well be wrong. However, I've been following
this mess since the GIF hit the fan in 1994 and I've never been
reassured by the explanations I've seen and heard. But you can judge for
yourself. Here are some web sites that contain statements from Unisys
and Compuserve about all this. There are other sites that offer
additional information--you can find them by using Infoseek, etc. and
searching for "LZW" and "GIF" under their Internet categories.

I have never heard anyone from either Compuserve (which owns the
copyright on the GIF specification) or Unisys (which owns the LZW
patent) come right out and say that they won't go after a developer
creating web sites for for-profit companies. As far as I know, neither
company has ever defined what it means by "developer", "program", or
"for profit". Both have made a great deal of public-relations noise
about how they want to promote Internet and intranets blah blah blah and
aren't out to get the small guys blah blah blah, but when it comes to
specifics, both companies have been fuzzier than the antialiasing in a
.jpg at maximum compression.

Most of the commercial web-site developers I know (admittedly not a lot)
refuse to use GIF. Some, like me, are just plain nervous. Others view it
as a matter of principle--see the FSF and GNU sites for the relevant

I personally don't know of any case where either Compuserve or Unisys
has gone after a web developer or hosting service for using GIF images
on commercial sites. Enforcement effort--so far-- seems to have focused
on developers of image-creation and compression software that
incorporates LZW and/or produces GIFs. However:

(a) Unisys's patent on LZW expires in only four years. History has shown
that the zeal and greed of patent-holders increases logarithmically as
the expiration date approaches.

(b) Compuserve's copyright on the GIF specification won't expire in our
lifetimes. Compuserve is ultimately owned by Disney, which has achieved
worldwide notoriety as a zealous and aggressive defender of its
intellectual property. Disney (via AOL) bought Compuserve AFTER the
Compuserve-Unisys deal was worked out (AOL bought Compuserve just this
year; the GIF agreement was worked out in 1994).

(c) None of the statements issued by either Unisys or Compuserve are
binding for all eternity. Or even through the end of today. Either
company can unilaterally change its public policy on licensing at any
time. The only legally binding agreements are between Compuserve and
Unisys, and between those two companies and any parties that have signed
licensing agreements.

My own feelings about using GIF is that in the absence of signed
letters from both companies saying I can use GIF images freely on any
commercial websites I develop, it's not worth taking the chance just to
have marginally better quality and download time. They can afford better
lawyers than I can.

I've always gotten acceptable results--not necessarily perfect
results--using JPEG. The key is to take a few moments to experiment with
the compression, color depth, and subsampling. Programs that just save
in JPEG format without allowing you to futz with the settings will
invariably produce bad results. But as long as I take the trouble to
hand-tune the settings, I have always been able to achieve an acceptable
balance between size and image quality.

Also, I very much doubt whether site visitors care as much about quality
as we do--after all, they usually don't have the original image to
compare to. It's well-known among professional musicians and actors that
the audience usually can't tell if the performer has made a mistake.
Even the most glaring errors are likely to be accepted as part of the
planned performance.

I also believe that, as a rule, site visitors largely ignore images and
click on the link they want as soon as they can see it. Unless the image
itself is the sought-after content, I believe that it hardly registers
on the consciousness of the typical user, unless it is taking forever to
download. Users certainly don't sit there and conduct an art review of
the images.

As for speed issues, the easiest solution to that is to reduce the
number and size of images, a policy that 99.99...% of the commercial
websites I've visited should seriously consider adopting (while they're
at it, they can remove all the client-side CGI and binary crap...see
Eric's most excellent rant on that some time ago.) If the image is the
content and quality is an issue, a clickable thumbnail can be used to
access the real thing at the user's discretion.

What we really need is a first-rate, non-licensed, 24-bit, lossless
compression standard which the browser manufacturers are willing to
implement. If we keep using old 8-bit GIF simply because it is lossless,
we don't give developers much impetus to develop a first-rate 24-bit
version, which is what we really need.

For non-public intranet sites, there are other options. Someone correct
me if I'm wrong, but I believe IE4 supports all Microsoft formats, which
means (if I'm right) that you can use .bmp on your private site. I'd
test it here, but I managed to hose my copy of IE4 and haven't had time
to download a new one yet.

Linda K. Sherman <linsherm -at- gte -dot- net>
Freelance Writer -- Technical - Business - Government

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