Security firm RSA publicly released its encryption algorithm Wednesday, allowing any company to freely develop solutions based on its prevalent technology. The algorithm is used by both Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer to secure the vast majority of online transactions.
RSA's US patent for the algorithm was set to expire on 20 September 2000 but RSA says it took the unusual decision to release patent rights early because of speculation that development could still be restricted by other related RSA patents.
But the company says its has waived patent rights to any development work carried out using the algorithm, giving companies complete freedom sell these solutions in the US.
"So much misinformation has been spread recently regarding the expiration of the RSA algorithm patent that we wanted to create an opportunity to state the facts," says chief executive officer of RSA Security, Art Coviello.
The RSA algorithm was developed in 1983 by three cryptographers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Aldeman. It became the cryptographic that has been used to protect the most prevalent Internet technologies. These include the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) standard, which is used by Web browsers to establish secure Internet connections.
Despite RSA's gesture, several competitors who have paid royalties for use of the algorithm for up to 17 years, argue that the industry could have done with the patent relaxation earlier. "Of course its fantastic news, but after 17 years to suddenly release it two weeks early is a bit of a stunt," says Paddy Holahan, vice president of marketing at Baltimore Technology. "It has held back e-commerce."
RSA disputes Holahan's claims arguing that its patent has helped e-commerce by establishing a trusted and assured standard. It says that releasing these patent rights now will give the industry a new lease of life. "Releasing the RSA algorithm into the public domain now is a symbolic next step in the evolution of this market," says Coviello. "We believe it will cement the position of RSA encryption as the standard in all categories of wired and wireless applications and devices."
RSA Security says it does not believe that relinquishing the algorithm will weaken its position within the computer security market. The computer security firm acknowledges, however, that the move will result in increased competition.