Lawyers please help (GIF patent info).

Well, lools like the patent on the GIF file type expires in the USA today, but that it is still in force in other countries for a while.

What I need to know is this: Say that I am a US software author. I would guess that I no longer need to shell out dough to the Unisys folks for using GIFs here, but what about in those other countries? Will I need to have two versions of the program now, or is the important factor that it was made here?

Thanks in advance.

I’m a developer rather than a lawyer, but I believe it’s fairly simple. If you want to distribute software using the LZW algorithm in or to a country where it’s still patented, you’ll need a license from the patent holder or you’ll be breaking the law in that country. Even if you are based in the US you’ll want to avoid that; international patent law is a can of worms best left unopened.

Thanks to PNG, the GIF format isn’t very attractive today so supporting it might not be essential. If I wanted my program to support compressed GIFs, I’d do it with a plugin available only for customers in countries where the patent has expired.

Hey, good news! If you want to know about french law, clairobscur could probably fill you in (he’s made solid posts on french law before).

If you are willing to accept a reasoned guess based on common patent principles, here’s my take. Patent law can apply to different subjects; in this case it looks as if the patent applies to a process, to wit the algorithm for packing/unpacking GIFs. It probably does not extent to the GIFS themselves (the product).

On the assumption that the process only applies to the process, it will probably prohibit applying that process, and selling or distributing (etc.) stuff for applying that process. That means that you cannot run you program in countries where the patent is still valid, and you are not allowed to distribute or sell your program there either. A proviso is that patent AFAIK mostly extends only to commercial use, so using the algorithm for private purposes might still be allowed. Selling the algorithm to private parties, however, would probably still be prohibited since the sale would be itself commercial.

This means that the fact that you legally can sell your program in the U.S. does not imply that you can import it freely in France. You would still need consent from the rightholder to import it in France. You would not need to have two versions, as long as you have obtained consent. If you don’t want consent (i.e. pay for a license), then you would indeed need a separate, non-GIF version for France and other countries where the patent still holds.

This is only a rough analysis giving educated guesses, and since I do not know the specific laws of the countries concerned, I cannot give ‘hard’ answers. There may well be specific local provisions that differ from the rough guidelines mentioned above. But since my educated guess comes down to your worst-case scenario, there should be no harm in putting it up here.

Note: if you are thinking of actually getting involved with GIF in France or other countries, I advise you to consult a lawyer qualified to advise on the laws in question. And other lawyerly disclaimer stuff.

Those assumptions are correct. The patent applies to an old compression algorithm (called LZW after the creators Lempel, Ziv, and Welch) and covers selling or distributing software using this algorithm to read or write compressed GIF files. It does not apply to publishing, distributing, or selling GIF files.

While that’s commonly the case, Unisys has been aggressive in protecting this particular patent even for non-commercial use.

You might find some information in the article here of interest.

To paraphrase a relevant part of the article:
The patent extension in Germany, France, Britain and Italy expired on Wednesday. The Canadian patent expires in just under a year and the Japanese patent expires soon after that.