Oracle has sued its larger rival SAP for "corporate theft on a grand scale", saying the company took thousands of documents from Oracle's website without permission in order to win Oracle's customers.

The suit claims SAP "has stolen thousands of proprietary, copyrighted software products and other confidential materials that Oracle developed to service its own support customers."

In a 44-page complaint filed in California, Oracle alleges that SAP "has copied and swept thousands of Oracle software products and other proprietary and confidential materials onto its own servers" as part of a plan to compile "an illegal library of Oracle's copyrighted software code and other materials.

"This storehouse of stolen Oracle intellectual property enables SAP to offer cut rate support services to customers who use Oracle software, and to attempt to lure them to SAP's applications software platform and away from Oracle's," the lawsuit alleges. Oracle said it sued to "stop SAP's illegal intrusions and theft, to prevent SAP from using the materials it has illegally acquired to compete with Oracle and to recover damages and attorneys' fees."

A spokesman for SAP Americas declined to comment on the suit. "We have just been notified of the lawsuit, and have taken note of the Oracle press release. We are still reviewing the matter, and, until we have a chance to study the allegations, SAP will follow is standard policy of not commenting on pending litigation," said Bill Wohl.

The amount of damages being sought by Oracle was not revealed.

The suit has 11 claims, including allegations that SAP violated the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the California Computer Data Access and Fraud Act; engaged in unfair competition; engaged in intentional and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage; and civil conspiracy.

The lawsuit also alleges that "SAP is engaged in systematic, illegal access to - and taking from - Oracle's computerised customer support systems... SAP gained repeated and unauthorised access, in many cases by use of pre-textual customer log-in credentials, to Oracle's proprietary, password-protected customer support web site."

The alleged incidents were discovered in late November 2006, according to the lawsuit.

The case may reflect the recent trend for third-party support services firms to try to lure IT managers away from the original software vendor toward lower-cost support options.

The lawsuit alleges that "the access and download activity Oracle observed on its systems in late November and December 2006 did not resemble the authorised, limited access to which its customers were entitled. Instead, SAP employees using the log-in credentials of Oracle customers with expired or soon-to-expire support rights had, in a matter of a few days or less, accessed and copied thousands of individual software and support materials."

In one case, using one customer's credentials, "SAP suddenly downloaded an average of over 1,800 items per day for four days straight (compared to that customer's normal downloads averaging 20 per month)," according to the suit. "Other purported customers hit the Oracle site and harvested software and support materials after they had cancelled all support with Oracle in favour of SAP's TN division.

"Oracle has found many examples of similar activity," the lawsuit said - including more than 10,000 unauthorised downloads of material relating to hundreds of different programs.

The downloads originated from an IP address in Bryan, Texas, the location of an SAP America branch office and home to its wholly owned subsidiary SAP TN. SAP TN, according to the lawsuit, provides support services for Oracle's PeopleSoft and JD Edwards applications. The lawsuit alleges that SAP's activities began after Oracle's January 2005 acquisition of PeopleSoft.

"SAP AG had no answer for the business proposition the new Oracle offered," the suit alleged. "Not only do many SAP AG customers use Oracle's superior database software programs, but now Oracle offered a deeper, broader product line of enterprise applications software programs to compete against SAP AG."

"Rather than improve its own products and offerings, SAP AG instead considered how to undermine Oracle," the suit states. "One way was to hit at Oracle's customer base - and potentially increase its own - by acquiring and bankrolling a company that claimed the ability to compete with Oracle support and maintenance services on Oracle's own software products."

An Oracle spokeswoman also declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, called the lawsuit "a curious state of affairs. Oracle has been trying very hard to remake itself as a company that looks more like SAP than as the classic Oracle," King said.

SAP provides a wide range of business software, which is what Oracle has been trying to do through its acquisitions over the last several years, he said.

"For SAP, the database is one part ..., but simply one part of the technical underpinnings" needed by users. "Oracle started on the database side and as time has gone on, the company has recognised that being a database specialist [alone] was not a way to sustain growth."

Oracle reacted by adding other application lines and becoming more like SAP, King said. "I think they've become very successful at pursuing that strategy."