Oracle decision could radically alter the IP playing field
Last week a federal jury found that Google did not commit patent infringement on two Oracle patents in question. In a unanimous verdict, the 10-member jury dashed Oracle’s hopes of a major public relations coup, not to mention a healthy cash award. Oracle claims that their losses due to Google’s use of two Java patents amounts to $6.1 billion, though a federal judge made them adjust their dollar figure. Oracle then sought $1.4 billion in damages.
At issue are two Sun Microsystems patents that Oracle owns after their January 2010 purchase of the Santa Clara computer systems company. Some code in Google’s Android API were alleged to be too close to the patents owned by Oracle and used in Java programming tools. Further compounding the issue is the matter of former Sun Microsystems employees working at Google.
For their part, Google didn’t deny the similarity. Rather, they offered up “fair use” as a justification. The jury agreed, saying that while Google might have infringed on a copyright, they did not infringe on a patent. Oracle is now free to pursue up to $150,000 in damages, though that likely won’t come close to covering the legal fees associated with the case and there will be no damages phase of the trial for the foreseeable future. Intellectual property attorney Brian Love told Bloomberg that $150,000 is about the cost of two days of legal fees for Oracle.
The dispute is over a Java-compatible technology called Dalvik -- a clean room version of Java. Google built the technology from scratch, not directly utilizing directly Sun patents. All Java software has to be completely rebuilt to run specifically for Dalvik and a simple port is not possible. Dalvik is only one way for programmers to write code for an Android phone, while many prefer HTML 5 and C languages. Still, key programs, such as the email program, are written in Dalvik.
The decision has potentially far-reaching implications for the world of tech in general, but especially the so-called “Patent Wars” in the United States. The jury accepted the “fair use” argument, setting a legal precedent that could make going after copyright and patent infringers significantly more difficult. Presiding Judge William Alsup might issue a ruling soon that says that key elements of Java’s APIs can’t be patented in the first place. This has the potential to radically alter the playing field when it comes to software IP.
Oracle certainly took a thump on the nose during this trial, with lots of money and intellectual capital put on the line. Further, the company's credibility has been severely damaged among developers. Google has long alleged that Oracle, Microsoft and others have been using the courts to attack them, rather than innovate. The judgment takes no position on that claim. However, if true the recent ruling will almost certainly make patent trolls think twice about falling back on legal action against competitors.
Google didn’t just win, they won big. The Android platform, the most popular operating system for smartphones, will not have its growth slowed at all and will not have to reconfigure any software based on the ruling. While this doesn’t change much for Google, it does remove a hanging albatross from around the company’s neck.
But the big winner here isn’t any large technology firm. It’s the open and free source software community. Oracle’s lawsuit was roundly criticized in those circles and the defeat of the lawsuit was met with no small amount of joy (or schadenfreude) on open source blogs like Groklaw. While it’s too early to say, the recent decision in the Oracle case might embolden that community. Subsequent rulings from Judge Alsup might radically embolden the open and free source community and if nothing else is a big moral victory for the same.