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Truth about computer security hysteria
Truth About Computer Security Hysteria

Antivirus patents — should we worry?

Rob Rosenberger, Vmyths co-founder
Tuesday, 2 May 2000 PATENTED ANTIVIRUS TECHNOLOGY made the news in recent press releases:
  • Symantec received a patent for "technology that will speed up the process for scanning files on PCs and servers as well as files sent over the Web." They also recently "announced significant improvement of the patented LiveUpdate infrastructure to handle the increase in Internet update requests that typically are triggered by virus crises."
  • Trend received a patent "directed to its InterScan AppletTrap malicious code scanner [which] provides a two-pronged approach to detecting harmful ActiveX controls and Java applets."
  • Network Associates "announced that its Enterprise SecureCast anti-virus technology has been granted U.S. Pat. No. 6,035,423" relating to their "proprietary solution for keeping anti-virus software continuously updated over the Internet."
  • InDefense touted a "patented, Windows-based security technology to create a [security] solution that operates compatibly with popular anti-virus programs."
  • Aladdin touted a "patent pending technology, which quarantines Internet-inbound vandals and blocks their malicious activity in real-time."
I might raise an eyebrow when I hear about antivirus patents but I don't fret about them. This controversy affects the entire software industry, not just the antivirus world. I only want to know if someone tries to lock up the exclusive right to detect a specific virus. Let me explain. Suppose (1) I obtain an ironclad U.S. patent covering all aspects for a radical new virus technology and (2) I decide no one may legally detect viruses using my new technology. Poof! U.S. computer users cannot legally detect all known viruses. A scenario like this may sound off-the-wall, yet Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patent proved you can lock up a radical new technology.
I might raise an eyebrow when I hear about antivirus patents but I don't fret about them.
Don't worry about virus writers; they pose no genuine threat here. First, I doubt they could even file for a patent in a first-world country, much less coax it through a byzantine review process. Second (and more important), patents serve the masters of Avarice, not Wrath. No antivirus firm to my knowledge claims the exclusive right to detect a specific virus. I suppose one might actually try to file a patent someday, but it will undergo a truly lengthy review process. Antivirus firms will have long since updated their software to detect viruses using the disputed technology — and they'll attack the patent's legitimacy during a fight over royalty payments. The average user will sum it all up in two words: "moot point." If (I repeat if) something like this ever occurs, I suspect it'll pan out like the still-raging "GIF war." I therefore won't even fret about virus patents until the day comes.