The strange history of the GIF format

CompuServe introduced it in 1987. It’s limited to 256 different colors (possibly more with some color table trickery). When it was locked down by a patent, people rebelled and invented better formats. Yet 30 years later, the GIF format is strangely popular. Wired’s article, “The GIF Turns 30,” covers its history and the bizarre resurgence in its popularity.

The reason for its survival is a feature that seemed unimportant at first: it lets people create simple animations. That wasn’t a very practical feature on the home computers of the eighties; the creators probably thought of it more as a way to put a slide show into one file, with the image changing every few seconds.
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MP3 is dead. Long live … what?

Girl Genius: The old Storm King is killed, and a new one promptly crowns himselfThere’s the blatantly obvious. Then there’s the blatantly cynical, who-cares-if-you-see-right-through me obvious. I’m not talking about Donald Trump but Fraunhofer. The patents which gave them revenue have barely expired on the format, and they’ve suddenly decided that MP3 is dead. They’ve even crowned its successor: not any open format, of course, but AAC, which can provide patent revenues for years.
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The curtain falls on MP3 licensing

The site mp3licensing.com now redirects to the Fraunhofer website. MP3 licensing is a thing of the past.

MP3 licensing officially ends April 23

As I mentioned in my previous post, I wrote to the contact address on mp3licensing.com about why the site still said licensing was required. Today I got this response:
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MP3 patent holders haven’t conceded

Update: Technicolor is conceding as of April 23.

Although it appears that all patents on the MP3 encoding have expired, the people collecting the licensing fees haven’t conceded. The FAQ on MP3Licensing.com still says:

Do I need a license to stream mp3 encoded content over the Internet? Yes.
Do I need a license to distribute mp3 encoded content? Yes.

For developers and manufacturers:

I want to support mp3 in my products. Do I need a license? Yes.
I have my own/third party mp3 software. Do I need a license? Yes.

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Why MP3 freedom matters

Yesterday I mentioned MP3 Freedom Day to a friend, and he asked why it mattered. That’s something I should have explained. The MP3 patent holders, principally Fraunhofer and Technicolor, demand payment for any use of MP3 technology.

They even go after distributors of open source code. The Register reports:
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MP3 Freedom Day, April 16, 2017

Get ready to celebrate! The last MP3 patent is about to expire! I think.

The Wikipedia article on MP3, as I’m writing this, claims that “MP3 technology will be patent-free in the United States on 16 April 2017 when U.S. Patent 6,009,399, held by the Technicolor[73] and administered by Technicolor, expires.” OSNews doesn’t list any patents beyond April 16. If they’re correct, then Easter will be MP3 Freedom Day!

Or maybe not. The “Big List of MP3 Patents (and Supposed Expiration Dates)” lists a patent which won’t expire until August 29. The Library of Congress cites this list in its discussion of the MP3 encoding format, though it doesn’t have any special authority. That patent looks dubious.
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New look and URL for LoC formats site

The Library of Congress has reorganized its site on file format sustainability and given it a new URL. (The old one redirects there.) A blog entry discusses the change. Relationships among formats are a big part of the site. It’s significant, for instance, that the MP3 encoding and the de facto MP3 file format get separate entries.

My reactions are mixed. When you click “Format Descriptions” on the main page, you get a page titled “Format Description Categories.” The nesting description at the top says you’re in “Format Descriptions as XML.” Eight categories are listed, and two formats plus “All xxx format descriptions” are listed under each category. There’s no obvious reason why those two formats get special prominence, or what the page has to do with XML.
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JHOVE online hack day

My venture into the Techno-Liberty blog didn’t work so well. In fact, I’m getting more views on this blog, in spite of not having posted in months, than I got on my best days on the other blog. So … I’m back.

JHOVE is still doing well too, thanks to excellent work by Carl Wilson and others at the Open Preservation Foundation. There will be an online hack day for JHOVE on April 27. The aim is to find ways to improve JHOVE by improving error reporting, collecting example files, and documenting the preservation impact of JHOVE validation issues. (I think that last one means “Why does McGath’s PDF module suck?” :)

The time listed is 8 AM-8 PM. I asked what time zone that is, and was told it means any and all, from New Zealand the long way around to Hawaii.

Last time I said I’d drop in and didn’t really manage to. This time I won’t make promises, but I’ll try to be around in some form. If nothing else, people can ask me questions about JHOVE in the comments.

Shifting focus

You may have noticed this blog has been less active for a while. It’s several years since I’ve been actively involved in digital preservation, apart from a PNG module for JHOVE. File formats are still a special love of mine, but I’m moving on to a new blog, reflecting more urgent concerns. This blog is called Techno-Liberty. It’s about the tools for staying free through open communication, privacy, and new technologies.

This blog will stay around as long as WordPress doesn’t purge it, but new posts may be rare. I want to put as much effort as I can into making Techno-Liberty an interesting blog with a steady stream of substantial content. I hope many of you will find it worth following.