Saturday, 2 June 2012
Editorial: Oracle loses big stakes gamble against Android
Judge Alsup, arguably the most respected juror of his generation, has ruled that the Java APIs at issue are not copyrightable, effectively handing Oracle a legal black eye. The conclusion of this action, some two years after its commencement, raises the question as to the motives of Oracle in bringing it to court in the first place given that the trial proper became a switch in importance from the alleged infringement of dozens of patents, to a skirmish about copyright of API code in what is supposedly a "free to use" programming language.
At the outset of the trial, Oracle was claiming up to 6 billion US dollars in "damages" for the use of numerous patents it claimed Android infringed. This was eventually reduced to just two after the remainder were either rejected or withdrawn during the pre-trial phase as unlikely to succeed. Eventually, even these "strongest" patents were ultimately found not infringed.
Meanwhile, as the patent list was whittled away, Oracle gambled on improving its odds of a win by amending its suit to include breach of copyright which increasingly became the company's best hope of extracting some money from Google - albeit far less than the six billion originally anticipated - to a best case scenario of, still breathtakingly, around one billion US!
This copyright infringement issue became phase one of what was to be a three phase trial. At the conclusion of that first phase however, the jury found that Google had indeed used the code in question, but were disinclined to accept that such code could be subject to copyright. The resulting hung jury (nine to three in favor of Google) meant Judge Alsup reserved the decision on that issue for himself. Which brings us back to the headline on this editorial.
Given the circumstances of this case, it's tempting to ask what motivated Oracle.
The purchase of Sun, owner and developer of Java, was completed by Oracle in February 2010, but why? Besides some of Oracle's enterprise software using the open-source Java, Sun wasn't exactly setting the IT world alight with its financial performance, so what else was in it for Oracle? "Fast climbing upstart Android's dependence on Java" seems to be the logical answer, a tempting target for some patent-led pillaging. So, basically from its pre-purchase interest forward (2009 was the year Oracle announced its interest in buying Sun), Oracle seemingly set its sights on some Google billions - at the time they announced the purchase, Oracle claimed Java was "the most important software Oracle has ever acquired".
Fortunately for Android users everywhere, the Californian court has roundly dismissed Oracle's claims, and at a likely cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and expert testimony to Oracle in the process. Google has been forced to spend equivalent sums in its defense against the avaricious action it was forced to defend, but will no doubt be happy enough with the verdict.
As yet, no financial judgement has been made by Judge Alsup against Google although potentially an award of around $200,000US is possible for Android's inadvertent inclusion of nine lines of range check code in its pre-Ice Cream Sandwich OSes. It's more likely to be the minimum allowable by law of $50,000 though, a pyrrhic victory for Oracle.
Of course, it doesn't end here. Oracle has already announced its intention to appeal the decisions, and given the size of the prize, they can hardly do otherwise (Rhyming intended). Not to mention the little matter of the masses it's already spent on legal efforts, and like addicted gamblers everywhere, Oracle will double down in the hope of recovering some of their losses.
We know how well that works out though, don't we?
[Edit: Fixed incorrect identification of the judge]