The patent history behind GIFs, and the fight to make them free of fees
Mar 30, 2022

The patent history behind GIFs, and the fight to make them free of fees

Steve Wilhite, creator of the GIF, died this month. Artist and curator Jason Eppink recounts the tale of the technology behind the animated internet graphic.

Steve Wilhite, inventor of the graphics interchange format, also known as GIF, died this month at the age of 74. Animated or not, GIFs may now be a common, free feature of the internet, but the tech that powered Wilhite’s format was patented by the technology company Unisys. For a few contentious years during the internet’s youthful era, Unisys wanted to charge fees for all the sparkly GIFs we were sharing.

This fight — over who controls how information moves around the web and who gets paid in the process — continues to this day in various forms.

I spoke with Jason Eppink, an artist and a former curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, who gave me a GIF history lesson. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jason Eppink: The GIF itself was developed as an open format by CompuServe. However, unbeknownst to the engineers that were developing the GIF, they were using an algorithm that had been patented. There was an [Lempel–Ziv–Welch] compression algorithm, and it wasn’t until 1993 that Unisys becomes aware of the GIF format using LZW compression. [It] says, “CompuServe, you need to pay us license fees.” CompuServe is like, “Well, where are we going to get this from? We need to pass that on to developers who are making software that use the GIF inside our system.” And there’s a pretty big uproar because what drew people to CompuServe was that you buy the software that could allow you to view these images. We kind of don’t often think of what it was like pre-World Wide Web to kind of look at images, but it required special software.

Kimberly Adams: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s worth laying out that at that time, we kind of had multiple internets. And you lived within one of these systems based on which software you were using, right?

Eppink: That’s exactly right. And a lot of software and image formats were really dependent on what kind of hardware you even had. What GIF kind of promised, and what it really delivered on, was that it was very interoperational with all these systems.

Adams: So people were really upset that they had signed on to CompuServe so that they could use this, and now there was a fee attached to it. What were some of the things that people did in response to this?

Eppink: This spurs the creation of the PNG, portable network graphics format. But then, again, in 1999, Unisys comes back and says, “We’re changing our license fees.” So the League for Programming Freedom, which had been founded a few years earlier, starts this campaign Burn All GIFs to bring attention to, “Look at what software patents can do. We need to move away from this.”

Adams: What do you think would be people’s reaction nowadays if a company tried to patent GIFs or even something similarly ubiquitous across the internet?

Eppink: I think the uproar at that time really tells us something about the growing pains of the internet being an information system into kind of a site for consumers. It turns out a lot of our internet is licensed. Now, what this licensing issue was affecting, it was affecting these kind of smaller companies that were making software to make and view GIFs. Now that’s relegated either to, like, really large open-source projects or really big companies. And so those fees are really invisible to us.

Adams: Do you have any favorite GIFs, like ones you keep saved to use in messaging chains or in text or something like that?

Eppink: I don’t use GIFs as often as I used to. But I still really frequently use Homer [Simpson] disappearing into the hedges. That’s often an emotion on the web these days that I feel.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

Here is Eppink’s article “A Brief History of the GIF,” which he put together for the Journal of Visual Culture. I say “put together” because it’s part-article, part-just art. He laid out the various stages of the story of GIFs using the designs of various internet browsers and web platforms as they developed over the years.

So, if you’ve forgotten what a Netscape Navigator 2.0 window looked like or a GeoCities “Under Construction” site, it’s a nice, little reminder with a dash of tech history. And if you are too young to know what any of these things were, I guess it’s all history.

This is the Burn All Gifs campaign website, which is still up and running, even though the patent fight is over. Now it’s a pretty basic site campaigning against software patents and encouraging developers and regular users to put their online content in nonpatented formats, especially for music and video. So rather than saving a musical performance as an AAC file, which plays in iTunes, Spotify and other places but is under a lot of patents, they would rather you save it in the free lossless audio codec, or FLAC, format, which is open source.

And I know the whole debate on how to pronounce “GIF” is ongoing. But for what it’s worth, when the inventor, Steve Wilhite, received a lifetime achievement award at the Webbys in 2013, that was when he decided to put this debate to rest with an onstage image that read, “It’s. Pronounced. Jif.”

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