News.com's Michael Singer has a report that reminds us of why there can be a hidden toll of patents on standards. Already reeling from a Supreme Court setback in one patent case, Singer reports that BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIM) has inked a royalty-payment structure deal with alleged JPEG patent holder Forgent. No one really knows how many JPEG images are floating around out there. But Singer's story says that there's a good chance that many of them have in some way shape or form resulted in royalty payments to Forgent. Even the ones you're using.
The committee responsible for devloping the JPEG standard refuted the patent claim in 2002 and about 40 companies including Apple, Dell, HP, and IBM are in no mood to pay Forgent. So Forgent is suing them. This isn't the first time that patents on graphics file formats have reared their ugly head. Unisys has long claimed that its patent on the LZW compression technique used in the popular GIF image file format entitles the company to royalties as well. Meanwhile, the very much unencumbered Portable Network Graphics format which can be used in place of JPEG and GIF in many situations isn't getting the usage it should (if you have an opinion, feel free to chime in). Some Web sites, like the Free Software Foundation sponsored GNU.org go out of their way to explain why GIF files don't get used on their Web pages. Forgent also claims to have patents that apply to digital video recorders (eg: TiVo) and is suing 15 TV and media conglomerates.
In the bigger picture, the RIM situation serves as a reminder of why patents and standards are a dangerous mix and also serves as a harbinger of things to come if we, the sheeple, continue to allow technology vendors to sneak their patented digital restrictions management (DRM) technologies into virtually every form of digital content we use (music, video, images, and even our text documents).