It’s a sad old story, a story we’ve all gotten tired of–the patent so brainless as to be almost worth citing as a creative act of industrial sabotage, yet awakened from years of dormancy with a hungry ferocity to claw and mangle everything in its path. This particular patent is being exerted by Trend Micro Incorporated against Barracuda Networks, Inc. for a firewall product incorporating the popular open source spam filter, ClamAV. Only this court case stands in the way of a power grab that would require all open source work on virus filtering gateways to cease.
The Trend Micro patent (5,623,600) simply suggests that virus filtering be provided in a firewall. That’s all. Patents are supposed to cover things that are novel, and not obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the art. This patent meets neither criterion. Although it was filed in 1995 and granted in 1997, Barracuda has found a good deal of written evidence that filtering at the router was widespread earlier. And if lots of people are installing virus filters on their desktop computers throughout a company–any fifteen-year-old could say, “Why don’t you put it all in one place under the control of people who know what they’re doing?”
It would be amusing, if not so boring, to read in excrutiating detail the ‘600 patent’s description of the connection establishment and file transfer that takes place on every LAN. It won’t surprise readers to hear that the patent says absolutely nothing useful about antivirus protection, but satisfies itself by mentioning the conventional practices of checking for common file extensions and scanning for virus signatures. Of course, this stems from a common problem in patents: the more specifics you give, the narrower you make the patent, so real information is to be avoided as much as possible. Patent officers, though, are supposed to make sure that the patent actually teaches something new.
Barracuda deserves a lot of credit for standing up to the threat and marshaling its forces to overturn the patent. You might wonder why any vendor with a shred of self-respect would settle a claim by Trend Micro. Surprise! At least two vendors already have, one of them McAfee. It’s not fair to judge other companies (each of which faced particular circumstances and needs of the moment), but certainly companies such as Trend Micro use the simple fact of settlement to argue in court that ridiculous patents are valid.
Dean Drako, President and CEO of Barracuda, says that the ClamAV site shows mor\e than one million unique installations. He therefore estimates that ClamAV is currently protecting at least one hundred million computers from viruses. Any help finding prior art can aid Barracuda in its defense of this leading free software project. More information can be found at http://www.barracudanetworks.com/legal.