The Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) is a bitmap image format that was introduced by CompuServe in 1987 and has since come into widespread usage on the World Wide Web due to its wide support and portability.
The format supports up to 8 bits per pixel thus allowing a single image to reference a palette of up to 256 distinct colors. The colors are chosen from the 24-bit RGB color space. It also supports animations and allows a separate palette of 256 colors for each frame. The color limitation makes the GIF format unsuitable for reproducing color photographs and other images with continuous color, but it is well-suited for simpler images such as graphics or logos with solid areas of color.
GIF images are compressed using the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) lossless data compression technique to reduce the file size without degrading the visual quality. This compression technique was patented in 1985. Controversy over the licensing agreement between the patent holder, Unisys, and CompuServe in 1994 spurred the development of the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) standard; since then all the relevant patents have expired.
CompuServe introduced the GIF format in 1987 to provide a color image format for their file downloading areas, replacing their earlier run-length encoding (RLE) format, which was black and white only. GIF became popular because it used LZW data compression, which was more efficient than the run-length encoding that formats such as PCX and MacPaint used, and fairly large images could therefore be downloaded in a reasonably short time, even with very slow modems.
The original version of the GIF format was called 87a. In 1989, CompuServe devised an enhanced version, called 89a, that added support for animation delays (multiple images in a stream were already supported in 87a), transparent background colors, and storage of application-specific metadata. The 89a specification also supports incorporating text labels as text (not embedding them in the graphical data), but as there is little control over display fonts, this feature is not widely used. The two versions can be distinguished by looking at the first six bytes of the file (the “magic number” or “signature”), which, when interpreted as ASCII, read “GIF87a” and “GIF89a”, respectively.
The feature of storing multiple images in one file, accompanied by control data, is used extensively on the Web to produce simple animations. The optional interlacing feature, which stores image scan lines out of order in such a fashion that even a partially downloaded image was somewhat recognizable, also helped GIF’s popularity, as a user could abort the download if it was not what was required.
The creators of the format pronounced GIF with a soft “G“, /ˈdʒɪf/, as in “gin”. However, another alternative pronunciation uses a hard “G”, /ˈɡɪf/, as in “graphics”, reflecting the expanded acronym. Both pronunciations are given as correct by the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary.
According to Steve Wilhite, the creator of the GIF format, the original pronunciation deliberately echoes the American peanut butter brand, Jif, and the employees of CompuServe would often say “Choosy developers choose GIF”, spoofing this brand’s television commercials. This pronunciation was also identified by CompuServe in their documentation of a graphics display program called CompuShow.
Despite the GIF format’s limitations, it can be used to display animation, as this animation of Newton’s Cradle demonstrates.
- GIFs are suitable for sharp-edged line art (such as logos) with a limited number of colors. This takes advantage of the format’s lossless compression, which favors flat areas of uniform color with well defined edges.
- GIFs can be used to store low-color sprite data for games.
- GIFs can be used for small animations and low-resolution film clips.
- In view of the general limitation on the GIF image palette to 256 colors, it is not usually used as a format for digital photography. Digital photographers use image file formats capable of reproducing a greater range of colors, such as TIFF, RAW or JPEG.
GIF files start with a fixed-length header (“GIF87a” or “GIF89a”) giving the version, followed by a fixed-length Logical Screen Descriptor giving the size and other characteristics of the canvas. The screen descriptor may also specify the presence and size of a Global Color Table, which follows next if present.
Thereafter, the file is divided into segments, each introduced by a 1-byte sentinel:
- An image (introduced by 0x2C, a comma ',')
- An extension block (introduced by 0x21, an exclamation point '!')
- The trailer (a single byte of value 0x3B, a semi-colon ';'), which should be the last byte of the file.
An image starts with a fixed-length Image Descriptor, which may specify the presence and size of a Local Color Table (which follows next if present). The image data follow: one byte giving the bit width of the unencoded symbols (which must be at least 2 bits wide, even for bi-color images), followed by a linked list of sub-blocks containing the LZW-encoded data.
Extension blocks (blocks that “extend” the 87a definition via a mechanism already defined in the 87a spec) consist of the sentinel, an additional byte specifying the type of extension, and a linked list of sub-blocks with the extension data. Extension blocks that modify an image (like the Graphic Control Extension that specifies the optional animation delay time and optional transparent background color) must immediately precede the segment with the image they refer to.
The linked lists used by the image data and the extension blocks consist of series of sub-blocks, each sub-block beginning with a byte giving the number of subsequent data bytes in the sub-block (1 to 255), the series terminated by the empty sub-block (a 0 byte).
This structure allows the file to be parsed even if not all parts are understood. A GIF marked 87a may contain extension blocks; the intent is that a decoder can read and display the file without the features covered in extensions it does not understand.
The full detail of the file format is covered in the GIF specification.
An example of a GIF image saved with a ‘web-safe’ palette and dithered using the Floyd–Steinberg method. Note that due to the reduced number of colors in the image, there are severe display issues.
GIF is palette-based: the colors used in an image (a frame) in the file have their RGB values defined in a palette table that can hold up to 256 entries, and the data for the image refer to the colors by their indexes (0–255) in the palette table. The color definitions in the palette can be drawn from a color space of millions of shades (224 shades, 8 bits for each primary), but the maximum number of colors a frame can use is 256. This limitation seemed reasonable when GIF was developed because few people could afford the hardware to display more colors simultaneously. Simple graphics, line drawings, cartoons, and grey-scale photographs typically need fewer than 256 colors.
As a further refinement, each frame can designate one index as a “transparent background color”: any pixel assigned this index takes on the color of the pixel in the same position from the background, which may have been determined by a previous frame of animation.
Many techniques, collectively called dithering, have been developed to approximate a wider range of colors with a small color palette by using pixels of two or more colors to approximate in-between colors. These techniques sacrifice spatial resolution to approximate deeper color resolution. While not part of the GIF specification, dithering can of course be used in images subsequently encoded as GIF images. This is often not an ideal solution for GIF images, both because the loss of spatial resolution typically makes an image look fuzzy on the screen, and because the dithering patterns often interfere with the compressibility of the image data, working against GIF’s main purpose.
In the early days of graphical web browsers, graphics cards with 8-bit buffers (allowing only 256 colors) were common and it was fairly common to make GIF images using the websafe palette. This ensured predictable display, but severely limited the choice of colors. Now that 32-bit graphics cards, which support 24-bit color, are the norm, palettes can be populated with the optimum colors for individual images.
A small color table may suffice for small images, and keeping the color table small allows the file to be downloaded faster. Both the 87a and 89a specifications allow color tables of 2n colors for any n from 1 through 8. Most graphics applications will read and display GIF images with any of these table sizes; but some do not support all sizes when creating images. Tables of 2, 16, and 256 colors are widely supported.
There are at least two rarely-used methods that can generate a GIF that, if decoded according to the GIF89a standard, will produce an animation that ends with a 24-bit RGB truecolor image.
GIF89a was designed based on the principle of rendering images (known as frames when used for animation) to a logical, fixed-size screen. Each image could optionally have no delay after it is rendered, and could have its own 256-color palette. Also, each image need not fill the entire logical screen, and the animation can cease after the last frame; it need not begin again. The multi-frame, zero-delay, and unique-palette features, optionally combined with transparency, allow for each image to replace only a portion of the previous image’s pixel data. When used without looping, a more-than-256-color final result can be achieved.
For example, a GIF can be encoded to render as a series of overlapping full-screen images, each image filling in color that wasn’t in the previous one. Transparent pixels can be used to preserve colors from previous images.
A similar method that does not use transparency is to encode the GIF to render as a series of less-than-full-screen images adjacent to each other, rather than overlapping.
Example GIF file
Microsoft’s Paint program saves a small black and white image as the following GIF file. Paint does not make optimal use of the GIF format; due to the unnecessarily large color table and symbol width, this GIF file is not an efficient representation of the 15-pixel image (illustrated enlarged above).
byte# hexadecimal text or (hex) value Meaning ----- ---------- ----------- ------------------- 000: 47 49 46 38 39 61 GIF89a Header Logical Screen Descriptor 006: 03 00 3 - canvas width in pixels 008: 05 00 5 - canvas height in pixels 00A: F7 - GCT follows (256 colors at 3 x 8 bits/primary) 00B: 00 0 - background color #0 00C: 00 - default pixel aspect ratio R G B Global Color Table 00D: 00 00 00 0 0 0 - color #0 black 010: 80 00 00 128 0 0 - color #1 dark red ("maroon") : : 085: 00 00 00 0 0 0 - color #40 black : : 30A: FF FF FF 255 255 255 - color #255 white 30D: 21 F9 Graphic Control Extension (Sentinel '!' + GCE label F9) 30F: 04 - 4 bytes of extension data 310: 01 - a transparent color index is indicated 311: 00 00 - delay for animation: no delay 313: 10 16 - color #16 is transparent 314: 00 - end (empty sub-block) 315: 2C Image Descriptor (Sentinel ',') 316: 00 00 00 00 (0,0) - NW corner of image is at (0,0) of canvas 31A: 03 00 05 00 (3,5) - and is 3x5 (i.e., fills the full canvas) 31E: 00 - other characteristics (e.g., no local color table) 31F: 08 8 LZW min. code size (symbol width) 320: 0B 11 11 bytes LZW encoded image data follow 321: 00 51 FC 1B 28 70 A0 C1 83 01 01 32C: 00 - end (empty sub-block) 32D: 3B Trailer (Sentinel ';')
The image pixel colors, scanned horizontally from top left, are converted by LZW encoding to codes that are then mapped into bytes for storing in the file. For the sample image above the reversible mapping between 9-bit codes and bytes is shown below.
9-bit binary Bytes (hex) (hex) 00000000 00 100 0101000|1 51 028 111111|00 FC 0FF 00011|011 1B 103 0010|1000 28 102 011|10000 70 103 10|100000 A0 106 1|1000001 C1 107 10000011 83 00000001 01 101 0000000|1 01
A slight compression is evident: pixel colors defined initially by 15 bytes are exactly represented by 12 code bytes including control codes. The encoding process that produces the 9-bit codes is shown below. A local string accumulates pixel color numbers from the palette, with no output action as long as the local string can be found in a code table. There is special treatment of the first two pixels that arrive before the table grows from its initial size by additions of strings. After each output code, the local string is initialized to the latest pixel color (that could not be included in the output code).
Table 9-bit string --> code code Action #0 | 000h Initialize root table of 9-bit codes palette | : colors | : #255 | 0FFh clr | 100h end | 101h | 100h Clear Pixel Local | color Palette string | BLACK #40 28 | 028h 1st pixel always to output WHITE #255 FF | String found in table 28 FF | 102h Always add 1st string to table FF | Initialize local string WHITE #255 FF FF | String not found in table | 0FFh - output code for previous string FF FF | 103h - add latest string to table FF | - initialize local string WHITE #255 FF FF | String found in table BLACK #40 FF FF 28 | String not found in table | 103h - output code for previous string FF FF 28 | 104h - add latest string to table 28 | - initialize local string WHITE #255 28 FF | String found in table WHITE #255 28 FF FF | String not found in table | 102h - output code for previous string 28 FF FF | 105h - add latest string to table FF | - initialize local string WHITE #255 FF FF | String found in table WHITE #255 FF FF FF | String not found in table | 103h - output code for previous string FF FF FF | 106h - add latest string to table FF | - initialize local string WHITE #255 FF FF | String found in table WHITE #255 FF FF FF | String found in table WHITE #255 FF FF FF FF | String not found in table | 106h - output code for previous string FF FF FF FF| 107h - add latest string to table FF | - initialize local string WHITE #255 FF FF | String found in table WHITE #255 FF FF FF | String found in table WHITE #255 FF FF FF FF | String found in table No more pixels 107h - output code for last string 101h End
For clarity the table is shown above as being built of strings of increasing length. That scheme can function but the table consumes an unpredictable amount of memory. Memory can be saved in practice by noting that each new string to be stored consists of a previously stored string augmented by one character. It is economical to store at each address only two words: an existing address and one character.
The LZW algorithm requires a search of the table for each pixel. A linear search through up to 4096 addresses would make the coding slow. In practice the codes can be stored in order of numerical value; this allows each search to be done by a SAR (Successive Approximation Register, as used in some ADCs), with only 12 magnitude comparisons. For this efficiency an extra table is needed to convert between codes and actual memory addresses; the extra table upkeeping is needed only when a new code is stored which happens at much less than pixel rate.
Decoding begins by mapping the stored bytes back to 9-bit codes. These are decoded to recover the pixel colors as shown below. A table identical to the one used in the encoder is built by adding strings by this rule:
Is incoming code found in table? YES: add string for local code followed by first byte of string for incoming code NO: add string for local code followed by copy of its own first byte
shift 9-bit ----> Local Table Pixel code code code --> string Palette color Action 100h 000h | #0 Initialize root table of 9-bit codes : | palette : | colors 0FFh | #255 100h | clr 101h | end 028h | #40 BLACK Decode 1st pixel 0FFh 028h | Incoming code found in table | #255 WHITE - output string from table 102h | 28 FF - add to table 103h 0FFh | Incoming code not found in table 103h | FF FF - add to table | - output string from table | #255 WHITE | #255 WHITE 102h 103h | Incoming code found in table | - output string from table | #40 BLACK | #255 WHITE 104h | FF FF 28 - add to table 103h 102h | Incoming code found in table | - output string from table | #255 WHITE | #255 WHITE 105h | 28 FF FF - add to table 106h 103h | Incoming code not found in table 106h | FF FF FF - add to table | - output string from table | #255 WHITE | #255 WHITE | #255 WHITE 107h 106h | Incoming code not found in table 107h | FF FF FF FF - add to table | - output string from table | #255 WHITE | #255 WHITE | #255 WHITE | #255 WHITE 101h | End
LZW code lengths
Shorter code lengths can be used for palettes smaller than the 256 colors in the example. If the palette is only 64 colors (so color indexes are 6 bits wide), the symbols can range from 0 to 63, and the symbol width can be taken to be 6 bits, with codes starting at 7 bits. In fact, the symbol width need not match the palette size: as long as the values decoded are always less than the number of colors in the palette, the symbols can be any width from 2 to 8, and the palette size any power of 2 from 2 to 256. For example, if only the first four colors (values 0 to 3) of the palette are used, the symbols can taken to be 2 bits wide with codes starting at 3 bits.
Conversely, the symbol width could be set at 8, even if only values 0 and 1 are used; these data would only require a 2-color table. Although there would be no point in encoding the file that way, something similar typically happens for bi-color images: the minimum symbol width is 2, even if only values 0 and 1 are used.
The code table initially contains codes that are one bit longer than the symbol size in order to accommodate the two special codes clr and end and codes for strings that are added during the process. When the table is full the code length increases to give space for more strings, up to a maximum code 4095 = FFF(hex). As the decoder builds its table it tracks these increases in code length and it is able to unpack incoming bytes accordingly.
The standard allows a coder to insert a “clear” code at any time in the image data. This can be used to create GIF files without LZW compression. The trick is to emit a “clear” code often enough that the encoder never reaches a combination where the algorithm would require a code for multiple pixels, thus avoiding the LZW patent for managing those codes. This technique leads to simpler encoding (a 1-to-1 correspondence between code values and palette codes) but sacrifices all of the compression—and in fact expands the data by the extra “clear” codes and the packing of the image data into codes that are 1 bit wider.
For the sample 3×5 image above, the following 9-bit codes represent “clear” (100) followed by image pixels in scan order and “end” (101).
9-bit codes: 100 028 0FF 0FF 0FF 028 0FF 0FF 0FF 0FF 0FF 0FF 0FF 0FF 0FF 0FF 101
After the above codes are mapped to bytes, the non-compressed file differs from the compressed file thus:
: 320: 14 20 20 bytes non-compressed image data follow 321: 00 51 FC FB F7 0F C5 BF 7F FF FE FD FB F7 EF DF BF 7F 01 01 335: 00 - end :
The trivial example of a large image of solid color demonstrates the variable-length LZW compression used in gif files.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ CODE | PIXELS | NOTES ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ no. | value | length | this code | accumulated | Relations using N¡ apply only to same- N¡ | N¡+256| (bits) | N¡ | N¡(N¡+1)/2 |<-- color pixels until coding table is full. ________________________________________________________________________________________________ 0: | 100h | 9 | | | Clear code table ---------------- ----------------------------------------------------- 1: | FFh | | 1 | 1 | Top left pixel color chosen as the | | | | | highest index of a 256-color palette ---------------- ----------------------------------------------------- 2: | 102h | | 2 | 3 | ---------------- ----------------------------------------------------- 3: | 103h | | 3 | 6 | : : | | : : | 255: | 1FFh | | 255 | 32 640 | Last 9-bit code ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- 256: | 200h | 10 | 256 | 32 896 | : : | | : : | 767: | 3FFh | | 767 | 294 528 | Last 10-bit code ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- 768: | 400h | 11 | 768 | 295 296 | : : | | : | : | 1791: | 7FFh | | 1791 | 1 604 736 | Last 11-bit code ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1792: | 800h | 12 | 1792 | 1 606 528 | : : | | : | : | 3839: | FFFh | | 3839 | 7 370 880 | Code table full ---------------- ----------------------------------------------------- : | FFFh | | 3839 | The maximum code may repeat for more same-color pixels. : | | | | Overall data compression asymtotically approaches : | | | | 3839 x 8 / 12 = 2559-1/3 -------|-------| |-----------|---------------------------------------- | 101h | | | | End of image data _____________________________________________________________________________
The code values shown are packed into bytes which are then packed into blocks of up to 255 bytes. A block of image data begains with a byte that declares the number of bytes to follow. The last block of data for an image is marked by a zero block-length byte.
GIF is designed to allow users to define new blocks. In the 1990s, Netscape designed the Netscape Application Block, which indicates that a GIF file is an animation instead of a static image. Support for these animations first appeared in Netscape Navigator version 2.0, then spread to other browsers.
An animated GIF file comprises a number of images or frames to be displayed successively, each described by its own GCE (Graphic Control Extension), preceded by a header whose content by default applies to all the frames. After the header the data is stream-oriented instead of being at fixed indices, so the location of the start of a GCE depends on the length of preceding GCE(s). Within a GCE the LZE-coded image data is arranged in blocks each of up to 255 bytes; the size of block is declared by a byte that precedes it. Below is the structure of the animation Rotating earth (large).gif:
byte# hexadecimal text or (hex) value Meaning 0: 47 49 46 38 39 61 GIF89a Header Logical Screen Descriptor 6: 90 01 400 - width pixels 8: 90 01 400 - height pixels A: F7 - GCT follows for 256 colors with resolution 3 x 8bits/primary B: 00 0 - background color #0 C: 00 - default aspect ratio D: Global Color Table : 30D: 21 FF 0B Application Extension 310: 4E 45 54 53 43 41 50 45 32 2E 30 NETSCAPE2.0 31B: 03 01 - data follows 31D: FF FF - loop animation 31F: 00 - end 320: 21 F9 04 Graphic Control Extension frame #1 323: 08 - no transparency 324: 09 00 - 0.09 sec duration 325: 00 - no transparent color 327: 00 - end 328: 2C Image Descriptor 329: 00 00 00 00 (0,0) - scan pixels from left top... 32D: 90 01 90 01 (400,400) - ...to right bottom 331: 00 - end 332: 08 8 LZW min code size 333: FF 255 255 bytes LZW encoded image data follow 334: data 433: FF 255 255 bytes LZW encoded image data follow data : 92BA: 00 end 92BB: 21 F9 04 Graphic Control Extension frame #2 : : 153B7B:21 F9 04 Graphic Control Extension frame #44 : 15CF35:3B 1 429 301 File terminates
The GCEs allow the duration for which each frame is displayed to be specified in hundredths of second. Some economy of data is possible where a frame need only rewrite a portion of the pixels of the display, because the Image Descriptor can define a smaller rectangle to be rescanned instead of the whole image. Displays that do not support animated GIFs show only the first frame.
Internet Explorer slows down GIFs if the framerate is 20 frames per second or higher
Unisys and LZW patent enforcement
In 1977 and 1978, Jacob Ziv and Abraham Lempel published a pair of papers on a new class of lossless data-compression algorithms, now collectively referred to as LZ77 and LZ78. In 1983, Terry Welch developed a fast variant of LZ78 which was named Lempel–Ziv–Welch (LZW).
Welch filed a patent application for the LZW method in June 1983. The resulting patent, US patent 4558302 , granted in December 1985, was assigned to Sperry Corporation who subsequently merged with Burroughs Corporation in 1986 and formed Unisys. Further patents were obtained in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada.
In June 1984, an article by Welch was published in the IEEE magazine which publicly described the LZW technique for the first time. LZW became a popular data compression technique and, when the patent was granted, Unisys entered into licensing agreements with over a hundred companies.
The popularity of LZW led CompuServe to choose it as the compression technique for their GIF format, developed in 1987. At the time, CompuServe was not aware of the patent. Unisys became aware that the GIF format used the LZW compression technique and entered into licensing negotiations with CompuServe in January 1993. The subsequent agreement was announced on December 24, 1994. Unisys stated that they expected all major commercial on-line information services companies employing the LZW patent to license the technology from Unisys at a reasonable rate, but that they would not require licensing, or fees to be paid, for non-commercial, non-profit GIF-based applications, including those for use on the on-line services.
Following this announcement, there was widespread condemnation of CompuServe and Unisys, and many software developers threatened to stop using the GIF format. The PNG format (see below) was developed in 1995 as an intended replacement. However, obtaining support from the makers of Web browsers and other software for the PNG format proved difficult and it was not possible to replace the GIF format, although PNG has gradually increased in popularity. The libungif library allowed GIF’s to be decoded but not encoded without use of the Unisys LZW patent.
In August 1999, Unisys changed the details of their licensing practice, announcing the option for owners of Billboard and Intra net Web sites to obtain licenses on payment of a one-time license fee of $5000 or $7500. Such licenses were not required for website owners or other GIF users who had used licensed software to generate GIFs. Nevertheless, Unisys was the subject of thousands of online attacks and abusive emails from users believing that they were going to be charged $5000 or sued for using GIFs on their websites. Despite giving free licenses to hundreds of non-profit organizations, schools and governments, Unisys was completely unable to generate any good publicity and continued to be condemned by individuals and organizations such as the League for Programming Freedom who started the “Burn All GIFs” campaign.
The US LZW patent expired on June 20, 2003. The counterpart patents in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy expired on June 18, 2004, the Japanese counterpart patents expired on June 20, 2004 and the counterpart Canadian patent expired on July 7, 2004. Consequently, while Unisys has further patents and patent applications relating to improvements to the LZW technique, the GIF format may now be used freely.
PNG and other alternatives
Portable Network Graphics (PNG) was designed as a replacement for the GIF format in order to avoid infringement of Unisys’ patent on the LZW compression technique. PNG offers better compression and more features than GIF, animation being the only significant exception. PNG is more suitable than GIF in instances where true-color imaging and alpha transparency are required. MNG was originally developed as a PNG-based solution for animations, but has not been widely adopted. The GIF format is still preferred for animation over PNG, although true Animated Portable Network Graphics are under development by Mozilla and are supported in Firefox 3.
Although support for PNG format came slowly, new web browsers generally support PNG. Older versions of Internet Explorer do not support all features of PNG. Versions 6 and earlier do not support alpha channel transparency without using Microsoft-specific HTML extensions. Gamma correction of PNG images was not supported before version 8, and the display of these images in earlier versions may have the wrong tint.
PNG files can be much larger than GIF files in situations where a GIF and a PNG file were created from the same high-quality image source, as PNG is capable of storing more color depth and transparency information than GIF. However, for identical 8-bit (or lower) image data, PNG files are typically smaller than the equivalent GIFs, due to the more efficient compression techniques used in PNG encoding. Complete support for the GIF format is complicated chiefly by the complex canvas structure it allows, though this is what enables the compact animation features.