ZLIB is designed to be a free, general-purpose, legally unencumbered -- that is, not covered by any patents -- lossless data-compression library for use on virtually any computer hardware and operating system. The zlib data format is itself portable across platforms. Unlike the LZW compression method used in Unix compress and in the GIF image format, the compression method currently used in zlib essentially never expands the data. (LZW can double or triple the file size in extreme cases.) zlib's memory footprint is also independent of the input data and can be reduced, if necessary, at some cost in compression. A more precise, technical discussion of both points is available on another page.

LZW compression (Lempel - Ziv - Welch) is a universal lossless data compression algorithm created by Abraham Lempel, Jacob Ziv, and Terry Welch. It was published by Welch in 1984 as an improved implementation of the LZ78 algorithm published by Lempel and Ziv in 1978. The algorithm is simple to implement, and has the potential for very high throughput in hardware implementations. It is the algorithm of the widely used Unix file compression utility compress, and is used in the GIF image format.