[linux-elitists] Rick Moen uses gifs on the sly (but don't feel to proud)

Karsten M. Self kmself@ix.netcom.com
Thu May 10 12:37:13 PDT 2001

on Wed, May 09, 2001 at 11:47:54PM -0400, Joey Hess (joeyh@debian.org) wrote:
> Karsten M. Self wrote:
> > Rick quickly owned up to running Debian on the box, so I've done my own
> > inventory of packages including GIF formatted images on my own box.  I'm
> > coming up with a nice, round, 100 packages (of 783 installed), having up
> > to 649 GIFs apiece (mswordview).  Not all of these are free packages
> > (yes, I do have realplayer installed - 145 GIFs).
> > 
> > I'm concerned about the free status of the software that's shipping with
> > GIFs.  I've already reported a bug against apache-common, I've withheld
> > reporting the other 100 packages. 
> Please bear in mind that building gifs without LZW compression is not
> subject to the patent. I think you'll find that Debian includes no
> software capable of doing LZW compression.

There's the problem of conformance with UNISYS licensing terms.
Existence of GIFs means that their existence needs to be justified if a
site is audited:

  - Are they licensed (does the displayer/distributer of the GIFs have a

  - Are they produced by licensed software?

  - Are they non-infringing (non-LZW) GIFs?

Cut out the middleman by not having GIFs in the first place.

See also Don Marti's arguments advocating burning all GIFs, with which I
agree strongly.

> Also, you need to bear in mind that Debian is an international
> project, and we have many members in countries where software patents
> are not valid (though this is changing). Plus, when we talk about free
> software, we're talking about copyright, not patents. And while we
> reluctantly comply with US patent law WRT to all but the most stupid
> software patents (on hyperlinks and so on) in the software we
> distribute inside the US, we're not interested in helping Unisys
> strongarm people into paying money for GIFs just because they may have
> been produced using "illegal" software.

It appears that the LZW patent applies in the US, Japan, and portions of
Europe.  This directly effects a large portion of the actual and
potential Debian userbase.  This is not a US-only issue.

The DFSG addresses the following points which may be effected by UNISYS

  1. Free Redistribution:  UNISYS is specifically seeking licenses for
    websites using GIFs.  This could be taken to mean, by extension,
    HTTP transmission of GIFs.  HTTP access is a primary method used by
    the Debian packaging system, as well as a method for distributing
    ISOs and other aggregate images of the Debian system.

  3. Derived Works.  GIFs are not freely modifiable, as distributed
    under Debian.  LZW-compressed GIFs cannot be recreated from within
    the free portions of the Debian distribution.

  7. Distribution of License.  The UNISYS display license is not
    transmitted to recipients of unlicensed GIFs.

  8. License Must Not Be Specific to Debian.  The fix of Unisys applying
    a blanket license to SPI/Debian would not comply with this rule.

In the case of the GPL, patent proscriptions may invalidate the license

    7. If, as a consequence of a court judgment or allegation of patent
       infringement or for any other reason (not limited to patent
       issues), conditions are imposed on you (whether by court order,
       agreement or otherwise) that contradict the conditions of this
       License, they do not excuse you from the conditions of this
       License. If you cannot distribute so as to satisfy simultaneously
       your obligations under this License and any other pertinent
       obligations, then as a consequence you may not distribute the
       Program at all.  For example, if a patent license would not
       permit royalty-free redistribution of the Program by all those
       who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the
       only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to
       refrain entirely from distribution of the Program.

It seems to me that patent issues may effect distribution rights under

It's not clear to me that the DFSG pertains only to copyright.  It does
appear to pertain *largely* to copyright.  The text of the DFSG contains
neither the word "copyright" nor "patent", copyright notice for the
document itself excepted (http://www.debian.org/social_contract).  The
first guideline specifically addresses licenses, freedom, and
restriction against royalty requirements:

    The license of a Debian component may not restrict any party from
    selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate
    software distribution containing programs from several different
    sources. The license may not require a royalty or other fee for such

If there is a clear statement elsewhere that DFSG applies only to
copyright, I'd appreciate a pointer.

I'm not clear on the meaning of your comment "we're not interested in
helping Unisys strongarm people into paying money for GIFs".  Are you
supporting removing GIFs or not?

> So important severity bugs using terminology that will be incorrectly
> interpreted by Debian developers (like "foo is not free"), based on a
> highly dubious reading of a patent that does not necessarily apply to
> the person who will receive the bug is probably not the way to make
> any more headway on this issue. Mass filing of such bugs is liable to
> attract more than a few flames.

It's a bug report.  It should be subject to evaluation, classification,
and remedy (including closing w/o fixing).  I would very much like the
report to be considered seriously.  

I chose the severity after looking at the descriptions and considering
the implications of the patent and UNISYS's licensing policy.  My
interpretation is that the status of the GIF license makes the package
unsuitable for distribution as a stable Debian release.

The "apache is non-free" statement was made, in part for rhetorical
flourish, in a linux-elitists post.  I believe the statement is
accurate, however.

Note that several fixes are possible if the immediate issue.  There is
an existing README.icons.gz file with the distribution, and I've checked
each of the GIFs with a binary editor.  The icons included claim
copyright by Kevin Hughes, and may have been created with licensed
software, though I don't see any obvious authoring program ID strings
in the GIFs themselves.

I was concerned that replacing these icons might not be possible due to
Apache internals (I'm don't do much beyond vanilla Apache).  It appears
that it's possible to override the default iconsets in
/etc/apache/srm.conf.  Though I believe replacing the icons in the
default /usr/share/apache/icons will be overwritten by system upgrades.
Adding guidelines to system administrators for proper replacement
mechanisms might be appropriate.  Better yet, the GIFs should be
abstracted to a non-free package, PNGs inserted in their place, and
appropriate config file changes made.

I don't intend to make a mass filing of bugs reports unless this seems
the best tack after discussing the problem.   My initial concern was
the Apache package, in part for the liability it may expose a website
to, and I've limited my initial bug report to apache-common.  This most
likely the most serious package as it does directly display GIFs on a
website, and would be the most likely to fall under the influence and
requirements of the UNISYS patent and licensing arrangement.  I opened
the bug, and reopened it after it was closed summarily, for this reason.

I've prepared a partial listing of packages containing GIFs, there
appear to be at least 100 effected packages based on a survey of my own
system.   Not all of these are free, but most should be evaluated.  I'll
distribute the list for discussion but not as a bug report at this

> This has all been discussed to death on debian-devel and debian-legal
> before, anyway. Read the archives.

Thanks, I'm checking now.  I had done a cursory check, through Google,
prior to filing the bug. 

Sampling of prior discussions:

    1999: This thread focuses more on GIF-creating software, not GIFs

    June, 2000:  Tomasz Wegrzanowski, raising concerns similar to mine,
    though the focus was on legality of GPLd LZW GIFs.  I believe the
    legal assessment of some is incorrect and understates risk.
    My point is also broader, asking whether or not GIFs can be
    considered free, not merely whether GPLd GIFs are legal.  Apache is
    not covered under the GPL.  The GIFs in apache-common are "public
    domain" (a term of questionable legality, according to counsel I've
    spoken with).

I don't find other substantive discussions on this topic in either list
from 1999 to present, stray GIF references excepted (and curse Don Marti
and his quotable pen for false hits).

> > I believe this is a problem and that actions should be taken to remove
> > all GIFs from the DFSG-free packages.
> I believe that this is a problem and something must be done about
> brain-dead software patents.

This *is* doing something about brain-dead software patents.

It's extremely unlikely that the legal landscape underlying the current
patent environment will change significantly, near term.  It's likely
that the current rising tide of more software patents, of poorer
quality, in more countries, of broader scope, will continue for some

Actions such as electing against use of technologies which have been
licensed repressively, and for which there are viable, current, and
technically superior alternatives, will help send the message to
patentholders that attempts at too strong an exercise of patent rights
will result in responses not in the patentholders best interest.  This
is more useful than attacking patents politically, as it undercuts their
value directly.  It's by reducing the value of patents that I feel we
have the best chance of making eventual political changes.  Reducing the
ability of companies to act unilaterally in imposing licensing
conditions is one such option.

I would like to see GIFs removed from DFSG-free packages.  I'm not going
to embark on a bug-reporting fest to do it -- this is pretty clearly
nonproductive, and addresses the issue at the wrong level.  This is a
strategic policy matter, not a tactical one.  It's also unlikely that
such a change could be accomplished in the current timeline for a Woody

A better course of action would be to adopt a position that:

  - It is preferred, but not required, that packages remove GIFs,
    replacing them with other image formats where possible.

  - Tools for evaluating a packages GIF-free state be provided (is
    lintian the place for this?).

  - Tools for converting GIFs to other formats be identified in
    package-manager documentation, and recommended for use.

  - Tools for identifying references to GIFs in software be developed,
    identified in package-manager docs, and recommended for use.

  - A target date is set for a point at which all free packages are GIF

As I said off-list to Joey, the bug filing was a bug report.  The
linux-elitist post was a seeking of counsel.  The messages are now being
cross-posted (not my action), but at this point I'm largely seeking
counsel on how best to proceed. 

This post should be considered informational only for the debbugs.

Karsten M. Self <kmself@ix.netcom.com>    http://kmself.home.netcom.com/
 What part of "Gestalt" don't you understand?       There is no K5 cabal
  http://gestalt-system.sourceforge.net/         http://www.kuro5hin.org
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