Forgent claims JPEG patent; others cry foul

Forgent Networks announced last week that it holds the patent to the JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) image compression technology, for both color and black and white images, and intends to license it to a variety of manufacturers.

Forgent intends to approach makers of digital still cameras, printers, scanners, personal digital assistants, cell phones than download images, camcorders with a still image function, browsers and any other devices used to compress, store, manipulate, print or transmit digital images.

"We have a patent for a specific algorithm or method that forms part of the process of data compression. We have been in touch with manufacturers of this type of device to talk about licensing the use of that method, and we have reached agreement with Sony (Corp.) and one unnamed consumer electronic company," said spokeswoman Hedy Baker Friday.

Sony was not immediately available for comment.

The company discovered the patent when restructuring and looking into its assets, Baker said. "When we realized we had it, we launched a licensing program and started to talk to manufacturers of devices whether the method is used," she said.

However, Håkon Lie, chief technical officer of Opera Software ASA of Oslo, Norway, said Friday that he doesn't believe the patent can be enforced.

"I would encourage people not to pay up if they are asked to. We have done a technical evaluation of this patent and we don't believe it applies. What it tries to do is patent Huffman coding in combination with runlength coding and we believe there's plenty of prior art for that before 1986," he said.

JPEG images are a crucial part of the Web, Lie said. "If it becomes impossible to use JPEG we will have to find other processes. We did that before, developing PNG when GIF (technology) was patented by Unisys (Corp.). But that was a long process and it's hard to remove older technology so I hope we don't have to go through that again," he said.

Baker said she did not know how the patent would be applied to browsers using JPEG technology.

Tom Lane, organizer of the Independent JPEG Group said in an e-mailed response that Forgent's claim has no merit. "The patent describes an encoding method that is clearly not like what JPEG does. The patent describes a three-way symbol classification; the closest analog in JPEG is a two-way classification. If the jury can count higher than two, the case will fail."

"I'm sure (Sony) felt that making the issue go away was their least-risky alternative, and that they didn't have enough at stake to fight it. I'm hoping that someone with more commitment to the preservation of open standards will fight back," Lane said.

"Licensing is a legitimate process used by businesses," and there does not appear to be undue concern among manufacturers about the patent, Baker said.

Patent number 4,698,672 was granted to Forgent's subsidiary Compression Labs Inc in June 1987. JPEG has since grown to be a widely used technology but Forgent has not tried to patent it before this year.

The patent covers all "fields of use" of the technology except in the satellite broadcast business. This is one of many technologies that the company has in its portfolio, it said in its statement. These include some developed internally and some that have been bought, Baker said.

Revenue from licensing will go to Forgent, based in Austin, Texas, and to an unnamed law firm that has helped develop the company's IP licensing program, the statement said.

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