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In The Alley Freebasing JPEGs

In The Alley Freebasing JPEGs

by , 10:30 AM EDT, July 30th, 2002

Forgent Networks is the corner crack dealer of the computer world.

We've all seen the anti-drug commercials warning of pushers using free samples to get you hooked, after which you have no choice but to pay for using their product. Well, in our case JPEGs are the drug of choice, Forgent is the dealer, and man, are we ever hooked.

Back in 1987 a company called Compression Labs, now a Forgent subsidiary, was issued a patent for a small part of an image compression scheme that is used in all modern JPEG files.

Whether it was a shrewd business decision or just plain ignorance, Forgent sat on the patent, letting anyone use it freely. It even became recognized as a standard by the International Organization for Standards, (ISO) who is even now reversing that decision, according to a story in The Register. Nobody believed there was a patent covering it so everybody, and I mean everybody, started using the JPEG format. Just think about how many JPEGs the average Web browser consumes in a single day. Without the format, the Web could not function as it does today. There isn't another graphics format that can compress images as well. Digital photography, publishing and almost any software that deals with images have all become dependent.

And now, suddenly, Forgent wants to start charging for each dose. Sony has already buckled, beginning the startling trend by paying an initial $15 million payment for past and future use. You have to wonder who's next. Microsoft? Adobe? Nikon?

Everybody knows that patents are there to protect against others profiting from your work without compensation. Forgent has simply waited too long to start vigorously protecting their patent. They set a precedent by letting others use the format for so long without any form of protest.

The real danger of this situation isn't in the damages that companies may have to pay, or the fact that those millions will filter down to us in the form of higher prices for products that use JPEGs. The real danger is in setting a precedent for other companies to follow. Even thought Forgent might not have done this on purpose, that fact won't stop many other unscrupulous patent holders from purposely using it as a tactic.

Given the fact that currently there's no other format that can replace JPEG and their patent doesn't expire for a few years, let's hope somebody fights it legally. I will go on record saying this would be the first time I'd cheer for Microsoft in a massive court battle.

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