TecSec Takes Patent Suit Aim at IBM, Cisco, Others; Previous Success over Microsoft May Not Extend

Last Updated Feb 9, 2010 12:47 PM EST

Encryption technology is one of those things that technologists can't seem to live without. (At least until we get a better type of human roaming the planet.) You can find it in a broad swatch of technologies, including cell phones, web services, and accounting software. So there may be a lot of technology vendors getting nervous when they see that a company called TecSec has filed a patent suit over encryption patents against companies including IBM (IBM), SAS Institute, Adobe (ADBE), Cisco (CSCO), Oracle (ORCL), and eBay (EBAY).

TecSec has been doing the PR route, emphasizing that it had sued Microsoft (MSFT) over some of the same patents, and the two companies settled last September. What would normally make that worth noting is Microsoft's truculence over patent infringement claims. However, the case was somewhat different from what is happening now. TecSec had licensed encryption technology to Microsoft and alleged that the company was making additional uses of the technology without paying additional royalties as the agreement between the two provided. In that sense, it read more like a breach of contract allegation than the straight patent infringement that TecSec now alleges regarding the other companies. However, according to Brian M. Buroker, TecSec's lead attorney from Hunton & Williams, "The prior lawsuit by TecSec against Microsoft involved a licensing dispute but also a patent infringement allegation related to products that TecSec claimed that Microsoft had not included in the earlier license. All five of those patents are included in the present lawsuit."

That still doesn't necessarily translate into the currently named defendants becoming nervous, as TecSec would have to show that any of them actually infringed a patent. But we're talking about a lot of encryption ground here. TecSec has 34 U.S. patents on various aspects of encryption, including tying encryption to the level of an object (for example, files or messages) rather than as an overall single process that everything moves through in the same way.

According to Buroker, "The eleven TecSec encryption patents at issue in the lawsuit cover specific applications of encryption technology that TecSec developed, including object-level encryption and labeling, encryption of XML data, encryption of data in a parallel processing environment and use of split keys for encryption key management." That's a fair amount of ground to have covered.

As the company received some of what appear to be its fundamental patents in the early to mid-1990s, you have to wonder if the alleged infringement was due to techniques only recently employed by the named defendants, if TecSec only recently noticed it, or if the company is looking to make hay in the few years left in the 20-year lives of those early patents. In any case, given the fundamental nature of some of these technologies, if any of the companies did do something similar, finding a workaround will not be so easy, and the legal wrestling should be interesting to watch as it unfolds.

Gavel image via Flickr user Thomas Roche, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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