Encryption vendor sues Sony for patent infringement

Certicom targets electronics maker over its use of two content protection technologies

Certicom, a Canadian vendor of cryptographic encryption tools, has filed a lawsuit against Sony alleging that the content protection technologies used in several Sony products infringe on two U.S. patents held by Certicom.

Certicom announced Wednesday that it had sued Sony in the U.S. District Court in Marshall, Texas. In its suit, Certicom alleged that Sony's use of the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) and Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP) technologies violated patents related to a strengthened public-key protocol and the use of digital signatures on smart cards.

The allegedly infringing products listed in the lawsuit include Sony's PlayStation 3 game console, Vaio computer systems and Blu-ray DVD technologies, as well as some of its TV models and audio systems.

Certicom, which is based in Mississauga, Ontario, said the patents at the heart of the suit are two of its "fundamental patents used in consumer electronics," particularly for its implementation of elliptic curve cryptography (ECC) technology.

On its Web site, Certicom describes ECC as an "alternative mechanism" for supporting public-key cryptography. According to Certicom, the technology was discovered in 1985 by two researchers -- one from IBM, the other from the University of Washington. The ECC algorithm was later placed in the public domain, and Certicom claims its version was the first one that allowed ECC to be used in a variety of commercial applications.

The company's ECC-based technologies have been licensed by more than 300 customers, including IT vendors such as Oracle, Motorola and Research In Motion. Certicom said its technologies are also being used by the National Security Agency, which in 2003 paid the company US$25 million for non-exclusive worldwide license rights to 26 of its ECC patents, including the two in the lawsuit against Sony.

"We have invested heavily in ECC research and development over many years and feel strongly that our shareholders deserve fair value from companies using our patented technology," Bernard Crotty, Certicom's president and CEO, said in a statement. "We prefer to resolve these issues through commercial discussions and without litigation. However, at this point, we are left with no alternative but to file suit."

A spokesman for Certicom declined to say directly if it is considering similar legal actions against other vendors that use AACS and DTCP. Those two technologies were developed by separate groups of companies, including Sony in both cases, and are available for licensing by other businesses.

However, the Certicom spokesman indicated that the company is looking to broadly license its patents. "We would expect licenses to be taken with Certicom," he said. "We will protect our intellectual property."

Certicom didn't request specific financial damages in its lawsuit against Sony, saying only that any penalties awarded would need to be "sufficient to compensate" it for the willful infringement of its patents. "The amount of damages can be determined in the course of legal discovery," the Certicom spokesman said.

A spokesman for Sony in the U.S. said the Tokyo-based company doesn't comment on any pending lawsuits.

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