Anti-spam managed service provider Postini last month announced that its founder and vice president of products, Scott Petry, had been issued U.S. Patent No. 6,650,890. The patent would seem to imply that Postinis Petry and the two other holders of the patent invented centralized preprocessing of e-mail on behalf of an ISP or end user, based on 38 claims. Spam shows no sign of abating, and this patent may divert anti-spam vendors resources from improving anti-spam products to fighting these claims.
After the patent award announcement, I contacted representatives of several Postini rivals, including FrontBridge and MessageLabs. Postini has made no patent-infringement charges as of yet, they said.
That could change at any time, considering the sweeping claims the patent makes, according to Mike North, a principal at the Silicon Valley patent law firm North Weber & Baugh. North said during a conversation with me earlier this month that the patent could be seen as covering many areas of data handling. "The part of the patent that talks about an intermediate server that simultaneously receives e-mail and then delivers that mail to a destination server could be interpreted quite broadly," said North from his Palo Alto, Calif., office.
The broad nature of Postinis patent claims may cause headaches for other anti-spam service providers, but I think the jury is still out on how IT managers should react to the patent news.
Based on the four-month span between when the patent was issued and Postinis announcement of the award, and on the fact that no competitors have been asked to pony up a license fee, it seems clear that Postini isnt in a hurry to get bogged down in patent battles.
According to Petry, the patent was applied for so that he and the other patent applicants (now holders) could protect their work, show industry leadership and develop intellectual property to show public and private investors.
"We were working on innovative technology at the time [the patent was applied for, September 2000], and we wanted to be good citizens in protecting the work that we were doing," said Petry. "I feel that in the world of IP, regardless of your feelings on the current state of affairs in the patent world, you either protect yourself or you get served. ... We filed numerous other patents covering other aspects of our business. Our intention is to continue. We see [patents] as strategically important."
Although Petry and others worded their responses to my questions carefully, I came away with the distinct impression that a fight was brewing among anti-spam service providers. For example, Jos White, president of MessageLabs, said, "Should the need arise, we will aggressively defend the proprietary, pioneering aspects of our own technology and processes using efficient, strategic means in a way that befits a true market leader."
Its important to stress that no public legal battles are currently being waged a la SCO. And while its impossible for me to estimate the amount of resources that are being diverted from anti-spam research in favor of patent research, its likely to be only a small fraction of any of these companies resources.
Indeed, enterprises likely wont feel patent aftershocks in the near future.
However, the Postini patent may portend a consolidation of the anti-spam industry. Ive said several times in the past that the anti-spam market segment is approaching this point, and Postinis patent announcement may be one more signal that the time of reckoning is upon us. Postini, by girding itself with intellectual property, may be jockeying for position as an acquirer—not one of the acquired.
Technology for fighting spam is being developed by hundreds of companies today, and consolidation in this sector could ultimately be a boon for IT departments as anti-spam mind share combines to fight spammers head-on.
Even as this column is going to press, Brightmail is in a "quiet period" in preparation for going public. Anti-spam vendor consolidation may be just around the corner.
Senior Analyst Cameron Sturdevant can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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