Oracle Releases the Hounds

Like eternal rivals Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the soft-drink arena, Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) and SAP (NYSE: SAP  ) fiercely battle for dominance of the business-software world. In its latest salvo, Oracle has filed suit against SAP, alleging that its rival has engaged in "corporate theft on a grand scale." Those are serious charges, but don't read too much into them; this case isn't quite the same as Pepsi stealing Coke's secret formula.

Oracle and SAP develop business applications for large organizations, making money by charging customers an up-front license and ongoing maintenance fees.

Back in January 2005, SAP bought TomorowNow, now known as SAP TN. The company provides Oracle customers technical support for half the cost of Oracle's own help services. It was a clever way to not only snag a piece of Oracle's maintenance revenue, but also perhaps migrate customers to SAP products.

Oracle charges that from November to December 2006, SAP TN employees downloaded more than 10,000 documents on Oracle's support site. The material is copyrighted and only available to Oracle customers. Oracle's complaint provides details on how SAP TN used fake contact information to gain access. (Fellow Fool Anders Bylund talked to an SAP TN spokesman about the suit yesterday.)

"It's important that Oracle is defending against a company looking to undercut a major revenue stream," said Martin Schneider, a senior analyst with the 451 Group. "The irony is that Oracle has been guilty of the same kind of activity in its recent underselling of RedHat (NYSE: RHT  ) Linux support."

Even if Oracle's allegations are true, the value of the intellectual property here isn't clear. It apparently took little effort for SAP TN to gain access to Oracle's help files. Could anyone have accessed this supposedly confidential information?

SAP NT did not steal Oracle's code, customer lists, internal metrics, or Larry Ellison's email. In that light, it's a big stretch to think that SAP NT's alleged breach significantly threatened Oracle's business. Judging by its fourth-quarter results, Oracle's maintenance business apparently remains robust. Instead, Oracle's lawsuit is just another offensive in the intense, ongoing global battle for business software.

Further Foolishness:

Fool contributor Tom Taulli, author of The Complete M&A Handbook, does not own shares mentioned in this article. He is currently ranked 1,590 out of 24,619 in CAPS. Coca-Cola is an Inside Value pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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