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    1 The following article from James A. Woods, one of the earlier
    2 authors of compress, explains its relationship to the Unisys
    3 patent on the LZW compression method:
    4 
    5 From uunet!zephyr.ens.tek.com!uw-beaver!mit-eddie!wuarchive!usc!ucsd!ucbvax!agate!riacs!jaw Wed Aug  1 15:06:59 EDT 1990
    6 Article: 1282 of gnu.misc.discuss
    7 Path: alembic!uunet!zephyr.ens.tek.com!uw-beaver!mit-eddie!wuarchive!usc!ucsd!ucbvax!agate!riacs!jaw
    8 From: jaw@riacs.edu (James A. Woods)
    9 Newsgroups: gnu.misc.discuss
   10 Subject: Sperry patent #4,558,302 does *not* affect 'compress'
   11 Keywords: data compression, algorithm, patent
   12 Message-ID: <1990Jul31.220935.1424@riacs.edu>
   13 Date: 31 Jul 90 22:09:35 GMT
   14 Organization: RIACS, NASA Ames Research Center
   15 Lines: 69
   16 
   17 #  "The chief defect of Henry King
   18     Was chewing little bits of string."
   19 
   20         -- Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales [1907]
   21 
   22      As a co-author of 'compress' who has had contact with an attorney for
   23 Unisys (nee Sperry), I would like to relay a very basic admission from Unisys
   24 that noncommercial use of 'compress' is perfectly legal.  'Compress' is also
   25 commercially distributed by AT&T as part of Unix System 5 release 4,
   26 with no further restrictions placed upon the use of the binary, as far
   27 as I am aware.
   28 
   29      From conversations with Professor Abraham Lempel and others, it 
   30 appears that neither AT&T, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, nor IBM
   31 are paying any sort of license fees to Unisys in conjunction with patent
   32 #4,558,302.  It may be true that some organizations are paying fees for
   33 data compression technology licensed from one or more of the many holders
   34 of compression patents, but this is all independent from 'compress'.
   35 
   36      In particular, I received a letter at NASA dated October 1, 1987 from
   37 John B. Sowell of the Unisys law department, informing me for the first
   38 time that some form of LZW was patented.  I naturally expressed
   39 skepticism that an algorithm could be patented (a murky legal area
   40 which remains so), stated that 'compress' is not identical to LZW,
   41 and in fact was designed, developed, and distributed before the ink
   42 on the patent was dry.  Several telephone conversations later, Mr. Sowell
   43 intimated that they would *not* seek any fees from users of 'compress'
   44 but instead were signing licensees for hardware implementations of LZW.
   45 
   46      So, regardless of what you believe about a shady legal area, if anyone
   47 from Unisys contacts you to extract tribute for the use of 'compress', please
   48 tell them that, first, it is not theirs to begin with, and, second, there is
   49 someone who will testify in court about the conversation above.
   50 It is not even clear if anyone can "own" 'compress', since original developer
   51 Spencer Thomas, myself, and others placed the code in the public domain
   52 long before the adoption of the Berne copyright convention.
   53 
   54      In light of the events above, it seems that the Free Software
   55 Foundation is being unduly paranoid about the use of 'compress'.
   56 Now I can well believe that FSF is more likely to be a legal target
   57 than a behemoth like AT&T, but if they are simply redistributing
   58 untouched free software developed years ago in the public sector,
   59 I see no problem.
   60 
   61      Aside:  I am investigating, possibly for a case history to be
   62 recycled to USENET, the particulars of data compression patents.
   63 I am aware of the following patents: IBM's Miller-Wegman LZ variant,
   64 those of Telcor and ACT [losing candidates for the British Telecom modem
   65 standard], James A. Storer's work on limited lookahead as explicated in his
   66 text "Data Compression (methods and theory)", Computer Science Press, 1988,
   67 and the various patents pending associated with the Fiala and Greene
   68 CACM article of April, 1989 on textual substitution methods.
   69 If you have any lore, send it this way.
   70 
   71 
   72 
   73                     Sincerely,
   74 
   75                     James A. Woods
   76                     NASA Ames Research Center (RIACS)
   77                     jaw@riacs.edu (or ames!jaw)
   78 
   79 
   80 P.S.  The algorithm patent issue certainly is a "topic A" at the moment.
   81 One useful reference is the review article by Anthony and Colwell --
   82 "Litigating the Validity and Infringement of Software Patents" in
   83 Washington and Lee Law Review, volume 41, fall 1984.  I know Robert Colwell
   84 personally.  As a practicing patent attorney, he tells me that, at a minimum,
   85 use of an invention "for research purposes" is legitimate.