In 1999, The Internet Almost Ruined One Of Its Best Inventions, The GIF


Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

By 1999, the world had already been worried about the Millennium Bug for some time. People who didn’t know how it worked assumed their computers would die. People who did know how it worked weren’t entirely sure what would happen. But there was an online community that had bigger worries. They were worried about Unisys, the owner of the data compression algorithm used to create Graphics Interchange Format images (GIFs).

Unisys was going to take all our money, and people wanted Unisys to know that they were angry. The solution was a plan to burn all GIFs.

The algorithm was called the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW), and the company that would later become Unisys was issued the patent in 1985. This didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Then came the licensing agreements with more than 100 companies, and again, nobody in the mid-80s world worried too much.

They wanted to have a literal burning of GIFs at the offices of Unisys to give the media something exceptional to report on.

CompuServe, an American online service provider, liked LZW so much that they started using it in 1987 for gif creation. Nobody cared, and nobody noticed. Not even the owners of the patent noticed for several years.

Then, in 1993, Unisys finally realized that they were sitting on a patent and licensing agreements for something that could be profitable. Unisys released a statement in 1994 saying that all major online companies using LZW would need to pay for a license to use it.

Website developers started to freak out. Online forums started to chatter and GIFs were starting to be scrutinised. And then something very weird happened that birthed the want to tear down GIFs forever.

In the original release of the statement in 1994, Unisys exempted the end users of GIFs. Then, in 1999, the statement which still had the date of 1994 attributed to it now read, “The typical Unisys licence for standalone software does NOT permit copying, modification, resale, use on a server or in a network, or use for internet/intranet/extranet or website operation.”

It was believed that Unisys had changed the rules and was now going after designers of web pages and the people who lived on those sites. Sure, they were exempting organisations like schools and not-for-profit organisations, but they had changed their wording and hoped nobody would notice. Some thought action had to be taken, and in stepped the League for Programming Freedom (LPF).

The League for Programming Freedom: Unlikely Heroes Of The Internet

The LPF had to do something, and they had two plans; one was to tell the world of the evil of the GIF and to push the use of Portable Network Graphics (PNG) which would kill the GIF, and the other was to let Unisys know that people won’t just stand by and let this license go ahead. To do this, LPF came up with the idea to burn all GIFs on November 5, 1999.

The archive of their website shows their anger at the time.“If you haven’t actually read this page, and just like GIFs or Unisys for some reason and want to tell us all about it, please don’t waste your time.” These people were pissed, and they wanted the world to know why they were pissed.

If you read something like “Two words. Contributory infringement. Do we have your attention now?” they would not only have your attention, they would also have you googling what Contributory infringement is. And you would start to get angry at Unisys.

The key to this being that Unisys hadn’t enforced these fees, they had only announced that it would happen. The LPF wanted to scare Unisys.

What Do You Mean, ‘Burn GIFs’?

The aim was to get websites to convert all of their GIFs to PNG format. They’d kill off the GIF, or make Unisys back down before enforcing the licensing fees. They also wanted to have a literal burning of GIFs at the offices of Unisys to give the media something exceptional to report on.

Do we save some GIFs to a drive and set fire to it? Do we print out some GIFs and burn the paper?

The chat in forums was confident; nobody liked GIFs anyway, they are a dead format already, GIFs won’t last, nobody will miss them. PNG rules, and GIF drools.

As November 5 neared, confidence grew and grew. The Burn All GIFs website was cocky. “Unisys, once a well-known computer company…” Ouch. “LZW is used in an obsolete graphic format called GIF…” GIFs were so cruddy that we just had to see out this issue and they’d disappear forever. All online graphics would merge to PNG, and we’d have a cup of tea and laugh in 20 years’ time whilst reminiscing about GIFs. GIFs? I haven’t heard that term in years. Pass me the keys to my flying car, I need to go to the shops and buy more energy cubes.

Did ‘Burn All GIFs Day’ Save The GIF?

When November 5 came, so did the burning. The images of burning GIFs are now gone from their old hosting sites, but discussion shows that people really did turn up to offices and burn GIFs. Imagine a group of people having a discussion about how to burn a GIF. Do we save some GIFs to a drive and set fire to it? Do we print out some GIFs and burn the paper? Do we print GIF signs and just set fire to those three evil letters? Someone screams from the back of the room to make sure that any images they use from the day aren’t in GIF format. People laugh.

The organisers of Burn All GIFs will argue that they were successful.

In the years following, Unisys never enforced the licensing fees in the way they wished. The company did get some fees from large organisations that directly purchased the rights to create GIFs for financial gain, but that was it. No users or small-scale web designers had to pay a cent. You could argue that this was because of people burning gifs, but you could also argue that it was the years of poor publicity and Unisys realising that enforcing these licensing fees was commercially silly.

No One Can Truly Own A GIF (Anymore)

Rather than the GIF dying, by 2004 Unisys had simply let the patent expire. From then on GIFs were able to be used freely, belonging only to the internet.

Of course, GIFs are now everywhere — across social media, replacing words to express emotions. Entire conversations, sometimes using only GIFs. A world without GIFs would be a darker place, but thankfully, we never have to experience it.