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Adobe, Xerox tiff slows Internet fax standard

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The Internet Engineering Task Force has slammed the brakes on its plans to develop a common way of sending faxes over the Internet, due to last-minute licensing problems between rivals Adobe Systems and Xerox.

After five years of development, the IETF's Internet Fax working group was ready to publish a series of documents as draft standards. But the documents, which rely heavily on technology from Adobe and Xerox, were put on hold Monday pending a review of intellectual property claims.

At issue is the working group's plan to use Adobe's Tag Image File Format (TIFF) to represent the content and structure of fax communications sent as e-mail messages over the 'Net. The IETF chose TIFF because it is widely supported in e-mail clients, fax machines and fax applications. However, TIFF supports only black and white documents.

The IETF working group extended TIFF to support color documents using encoding technology called Mixed Raster Content (MRC) from Xerox. The resulting protocol was dubbed TIFF-FX for TIFF for Fax Extended. Authors of the TIFF-FX document, which was written last November, include engineers from Adobe, Xerox, Nortel and Brooktrout.

However, Adobe now claims that the IETF has overstepped its bounds in using its TIFF technology in TIFF-FX. Adobe refuses to support TIFF-FX unless Xerox releases rights for its MRC technology to Adobe.

Xerox, meanwhile, won't back TIFF-FX unless Adobe promises to support the standard in its next version of TIFF, TIFF 7.0, which Adobe hasn't committed to ship.

"We've gotten ourselves into a scary situation," says John Klensin, chair of the IETF's Internet Architecture Board and vice president for Internet architecture at AT&T. Klensin asked the Internet Fax working group to review its decision-making process to be sure that it wants to go forward with TIFF-FX.

"It's late in the game ... and we're at a dead stop," Klensin admits.

In addition to the intellectual property problems, the Internet Fax working group is facing criticism because it didn't design TIFF-FX to work with Adobe's current version of TIFF.

"I'm seriously annoyed by the [intellectual property rights] issues, but I'm even more concerned about the lack of interoperability," Klensin adds.

While the IETF regularly faces licensing issues, the Adobe/Xerox wrangling was a surprise because both companies agreed several years ago to contribute technology to TIFF-FX.

"Never, in my experience, has the IETF seen such a ridiculous flap over intellectual property rights," says Ned Freed, co-chair of the IETF's Applications Area, which oversees the Internet Fax working group. Freed is a distinguished engineer with Sun.

The IETF's Internet Fax working group is designing protocols that allow companies to send and receive faxes over the Internet at a lesser cost than transmitting over the telephone system. Internet Fax allows end users to send or receive faxes as e-mail attachments or as hard copy documents printed out by Internet-enabled fax machines.

Two dozen members of the Internet Fax working group gathered at the meeting here decided to review and revamp the TIFF-FX documents with the Adobe/Xerox controversy in mind. The likely solution is for the group to replace TIFF-FX with plain old TIFF, which eliminates Adobe's intellectual property concerns and offers interoperability with existing TIFF-based systems.

"If they just remove the extensions from the specification, they can move forward and quickly get the document done," Freed says. "Otherwise, if they decide to make major changes like add color in a different way, it could be a six-month delay."

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