The smaller Santa Clara, Calif., company says Microsoft, which has added strong anti-copying mechanisms to its Windows Media Player, has come too close to InterTrust's patent-protected technology.
InterTrust is asking the court to force Microsoft to stop using its anti-piracy technology--an action that could force the giant to disable a key feature in its new, highly touted multimedia software. It is also asking for an unspecified amount of financial damages.
The unexpected fight shines a spotlight on a critical stage in the development and distribution of music and video on the Web. Record labels and movie studios are finally warming to the idea of seeing their content online, but they want it protected against widespread copying on services such as file-swapping company Napster.
As a result, so-called digital rights management companies such as InterTrust see themselves on the threshold of widespread use for the first time.
But in the past several months, Microsoft has made aggressive moves to carve out the lion's share of this business. It has built anti-copying technology directly into the Media Player and into the Windows operating system itself. As a result, the technology has won approval from several of the big music studios.
InterTrust, which provides software- and hardware-based copy protection, has said it sees room in the market for both itself and Microsoft. But Thursday's lawsuit may indicate that the smaller company is beginning to feel the competitive pressure more keenly.
An InterTrust attorney said the company did not immediately plan to file similar lawsuits against other competitors, a list that most notably includes IBM.
"InterTrust is always interested in enforcing its patent rights," said attorney John Keker. "But in our scrutiny of (the technologies), Microsoft is the one that has led us to believe and allege that they are infringing (our) patent claims."
The software giant declined to comment on details of the lawsuit, filed in San Francisco federal court.
"Microsoft has innovated heavily in the area of digital rights management for many years, and it is unfortunate that InterTrust has chosen to resort to the courts rather than competing in the marketplace," a company representative said in a statement. "We can't comment on the specifics of the suit since we just received it."