The encryption in question is the Secure Sockets Layer protocol, or SSL. Both Navigator and Internet Explorer browsers use it to secure Web-based information, including credit card numbers, stock information, and private documents. Netscape applied for the patent back in 1995. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the patent last month.
Even though SSL is heavily used in servers, browsers, and other networked products, Netscape said it has no plans to start charging developers for the source code or to impose other conditions.
"We don't want to discourage developers from using our platform," said spokesman Christopher Hoover. "An SSL license would be a real hurdle. It's not an income source that's necessary to exploit."
The patent, officially titled "Secure Sockets Layer application program apparatus and method," lists Netscape chief scientist Taher Elgamal as one of SSL's two inventors. The other is Netscape engineer Kipp Hickman.
Netscape doesn't charge for the SSL source code, but it does sell a toolkit that companies can purchase for a one-time $30,000 fee. Other companies, including Terisa Systems, also make toolkits that compete with Netscape's.
Use of SSL to encrypt credit card information will likely decline if the often-delayed SET (Secure Electronic Transaction) protocol becomes widespread, but SSL should remain a popular security method.
"SET is focused on protecting credit card information and is careful not to go beyond those boundaries," said Win Treese, director of security at e-commerce software maker Open Market, which uses SSL across its product line. "SET won't displace SSL except in a narrow area."
Because SSL is so widespread, it could be tempting for Netscape to impose conditions on its use at some point in the future, according to one industry insider.
"Just because they don't charge royalties doesn't mean they won't extract something people don't want to give," said Terisa CTO Allan Schiffman. "For example, for Microsoft to implement SSL, [its CEO] Bill Gates would have to paint himself red and stand in Nordstrom's window."
But for the time being, Netscape said the patent is mostly something to frame and hang on chief scientist Elgamal's wall, as well as protection against other people claiming rights to the standard.
"We have the patent for the same reason you would copyright a novel," said Hoover. "You might want to sell it, but if you don't, you want to make sure no one else publishes it under their own name."
Reporter Paul Festa contributed to this report.