[ISN] Legal questions dog Microsoft anti-spyware buy

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Fri Dec 17 03:25:30 EST 2004


By Paul Roberts
IDG News Service

With the ink barely dry on Microsoft's acquisition of anti-spyware
company Giant Company Software, questions have arisen about the
ownership of the anti-spyware code Microsoft bought.

Microsoft acknowledged that Sunbelt Software of Clearwater, Fla., is
part owner of Giant's AntiSpyware software. That agreement between
Giant and Sunbelt does not prevent Microsoft from further developing
new products based on the Giant code, according to Microsoft. However,
Sunbelt President Alex Eckelberry said that his company has exclusive
rights over elements of the technology, including the ability to offer
SDKs for Giant AntiSpyware technology. That could make it difficult
for Microsoft to integrate Giant technology with other products.

Microsoft issued a short statement regarding Sunbelt's claims Thursday
saying, "We understand that Giant granted a co-ownership right to
Sunbelt concerning an earlier version of Giant’s anti-spyware software
product. However, the granting of that right to Sunbelt does not
constrain either party from innovating and developing new products
that are based on that earlier version."

A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on Sunbelt's
other claims.

Sunbelt and Giant have had a close business relationship since 2002,
with Sunbelt licensing and selling technology developed by Giant,
according to Eckelberry.

Among other things, Sunbelt struck an agreement to sell Giant's
antispam product, Spam Inspector, under its own label, iHateSpam.  
Until September, the company also sold a product, CounterSpy, that
used Giant's AntiSpyware engine. The companies parted ways in
September, with Sunbelt focusing on the corporate antispyware market
and Giant focused on the home PC antispyware market, Eckelberry said.

However, Sunbelt claims co-ownership of everything related to Giant's
AntiSpyware product up to Sept. 20, including "the user interface
elements, explorer tools (and ) software update services," Eckelberry

While the co-ownership agreement will not prevent Microsoft from
changing the Giant product to suit its own needs, Sunbelt's exclusive
rights to create and distribute SDKs for the Giant AntiSpyware engine
could require Microsoft to seek permission from Sunbelt before
allowing third-party companies access to Giant's data.

"For example, if Symantec went to Microsoft and said 'Hey, we want to
get some of that (antispyware) data', they would have to go through
Sunbelt," Eckelberry said.

"It's an interesting situation," said Steve Frank, a partner in the
patent and intellectual property group at Boston law firm Testa,
Hurwitz and Thibeault.

While Eckelberry said Sunbelt has no right to share in future profits
from Giant sales, the company still expects to benefit from the
acquisition through co-ownership of Giant AntiSpyware definitions,
which can be used in Sunbelt products. Sunbelt also has the right to
develop and distribute the Giant SDK, he said.

Microsoft was probably aware of Giant's obligations to Sunbelt, but
"didn't care," or were impressed enough with the Giant technology to
overlook the contractual complications, Eckelberry said.

Microsoft and Sunbelt have been in contact, but have discussed mostly
"boring, technical stuff," such as distribution of the Giant
AntiSpyware definitions. The companies have not discussed issues
surrounding the SDK, Eckelberry said.

But attorney Frank doubts that Microsoft would have been so cavalier,
had it known about Sunbelt's rights to the Giant code.

"These are exactly the kinds of things that come out of the woodwork
when there's lots of money on the table," he said. "This will come as
most unwelcome news."

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