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.
James Unruh CEO 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. We might ask you for permission to publish your letter.
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 ultimatem.
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.