If it were proven in court, the claim by video network software firm Forgent Networks could enable it to charge royalties on all devices and software that use JPEG compression. In Forgent's own words, these include digital cameras, digital still image devices, personal digital assistants, cellular phones that download images, browsers, digital camcorders with a still image function, scanners and other devices used to compress, store, manipulate, print or transmit digital images.
The JPEG committee does not believe there is any foundation to Forgent's claim, which relates to U.S. patent 4,698,672. In a posting on the JPEG site, committee member Richard Clarke said the committee has examined the claim "briefly," and believes the prior art exists in areas where the patent might overlap with the JPEG algorithm.
Clarke said that in response to this latest claim, in addition to the possibility of two similar claims from Philips and Lucent, the committee is to launch a new Web site to collect "a substantial repository of prior art and it invites submissions, particularly where the content may be applied to claims of intellectual property." The JPEG committee hopes to launch the Web site before its next meeting in Shanghai in October 2002.
In the meantime, Forgent is in "ongoing discussions with other manufacturers of digital still cameras, printers, scanners and other products that use JPEG technology, for licensing opportunities," according to the company's chairman and chief executive Richard Snyder.
Explaining the claim, which was made in a July 11 posting on the Forgent Web site, Snyder said, "We wanted to ensure the investment community and the general public are clear about the terms of our valuable JPEG data compression technology, one of the many technologies we have in our patent portfolio."
It is not clear whether Forgent would follow the lead by Unisys, which owns a key patent used for GIF image compression, and seek royalties from Web sites that use images created using the algorithm.
Unisys attracted criticism when it said that Web sites that provide GIFs for download that were created with an unlicensed copy of the Lempel-Ziv-Wlech (LZW) compression algorithm were guilty of contributory infringement of its patent and could be liable for a $5,000 payment.
Unisys had originally said it did not require licensing, or fees to be paid, for non-commercial, non-profit GIF-based applications (such as freeware), including those for use on the online services. But in 1995, Unisys changed tack and decided that licences were necessary in all cases, and this meant that Web sites using images created with unlicensed software were suddenly liable to pay fees.
In response to the Unisys offensive, many Web sites turned to alternatives such as JPEG and the less well known PNG file format, which officially stands for Portable Network Graphics format, and unofficially for PNG's Not GIF.
Despite some scare stories that Apple had a claim on the PNG patent, the PNG Group has denied that this is the case. Apple has never made such a claim itself.
Wholesale switching of graphics formats on the Web is not easy, and licence decisions of the type made by Unisys and now, potentially, by Forgent, can be damaging, according to developers. In a recent speech delivered to the Cambridge Computer Lab, Free Software advocate Richard Stallman said the inertia makes the switch virtually impossible.
"When we started saying to people to stop using GIF files, people said we can't switch (to a new format), the browsers don't support it yet," said Stallman, "and browser companies said nobody's using it yet. There was so much inertia that we have not been able to switch people in 10 years."