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Symantec gains heuristic patent

Belated recognition won't spur fresh legal spat, says AV firm

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Symantec yesterday announced that it has been granted a patent on antivirus heuristic (automatic detection) technology by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Symantec's patented heuristic technology (US patent number 6,357,008), which is used within its range of AV products, "detects new and unknown viruses without traditional virus fingerprints", the firm announced yesterday.

Heuristic technology identifies new threats by directly examining files for suspicious behaviour, without the need for fingerprints. It acts as a complement to traditional signature-based antivirus software by providing protection against new malicious threats before definitions are available.

But wait a minute, you ask, isn't heuristic technology used throughout the anti-virus industry already? And wasn't the technology we're talking about here developed five years ago?

Good questions - to which the simple answers are yes, and yes.

McAfee, Trend Micro, F-Secure et al make extensive use of heuristics in their respective technologies, and that's not even mentioning managed services outfits like MessageLabs, which has developed a heuristic engine called Skeptic especially to detect email-borne viruses. Even Sophos, which warns that heuristics can lead to false alarms, makes limited use of the approach.

Symantec spokesman Richard Saunders admitted as much but said other AV vendors use a different approach to heuristics, which they may want to patent themselves (if they're happy enough to wait around for five that is).

Patents normally suggest technical innovation but as far as the antiviral market goes history has shown the US patents have been more commonly used as legal and marketing weapons in a fiercely competitive market. For example, Symantec and McAfee lawyers spent years in the late 90s arguing about the scope of their respective patents for years, and ultimately users end up footing the bill for this legal bunfight.

"This is all past history when both firms had different chief executives," Saunders told us.

Saunders said Symantec had no legal action pending in this case nor plans to license technology based on the patent, which is doubtless looking rather dated by now in such a fast moving industry.

Symantec was one of the first to develop heuristic technology (its implementation is called Bloodhound) and the point of the patent is that it recognises its development work and "promotes Symantec's ability to innovate", he added. ®

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