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I write little about technology on these pages. But this story left me incensed. A crew of Texas scammers or rather cyber-highwaymen are trying to shakedown the Internet economy for tons of cash by claiming that they own the patent to the jpg image format, the format in which at least half the images on the web — and I suspect many more — are stored.

The company is (the perhaps appropriately named) Forgent Networks and they claim that they got the rights to jpg when they bought Compression Labs back in 1997. They’ve apparently aleady gotten a few Japanese companies to cough up millions of dollars.

Up until now everyone had been going on the assumption that the basic jpg specifications were in the public domain — with ample facts to back up the assumption. (The precise ins and outs of the matter are a touch more complicated. And they’re discussed here. But this is the essence of it.) And now the Joint Photographic Experts Group, the committee which manages jpg (thus the name) is mobilizing an effort to prove the point.

If you don’t do much work with computer graphics or have never looked under the hood of a website, I grant you, this may all seem a touch nerdy and obscure. But really it’s not. Your digital camera? It uses jpg. Your Palm Pilot? Pretty much every electronic or computer device you own? The same thing. The sharks at Forgent want to get a cut from pretty much everyone who makes a product that uses computer images, and no doubt jack up the price you’ll have to pay.

I’m all for securing real intellectual property rights. But this, I assure you, is a scam. They are the cyber-era equivalents of highwaymen, sharks, cheesy protection racketeers. Let’s hope the folks at the Joint Photographic Experts Group and the courts won’t let them.

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