By Paul Festa – CNET

A patent underlying one of the Web’s most popular graphics formats is set to expire later this month, raising the question of whether a rival, open format, created as a royalty-free alternative, will become obsolete.

The situation has also rekindled debate about patents, innovation and the freedom of communication.

In the United States, the patent for the Lempel-Ziv-Welch, or LZW, compression algorithm expires June 20. LZW forms the basis of the popular GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) design.

LZW patent owner Unisys said it has no plans to apply for an extension to the U.S. patent, or to patents in Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy – though it will enforce those latter patents for another year, until they too expire.

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