Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Oracle’s Narrow Victory Is Really Google’s Win in Java Trial

The poet Robert Frost once observed that “… A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.” How then to interpret the mixed-bag verdict delivered yesterday in the first phase of the lawsuit pitting software giant Oracle against the search engine concern Google, over the use of parts of Java to build the Android mobile operating system?

Asked to decide whether Google had infringed upon Oracle’s copyrights to certain parts of the Java programming language, the jury agreed that it had. But then, when asked to decide on four specific examples of that infringement, jurors could agree on only one: The rangeCheck method in TimSort.java and ComparableTimSort.java. Don’t ask me to explain exactly what it is, but it is being described widely as “nine lines of code.” And, unfortunately for Oracle, the damages it can collect are limited to somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000 to $200,000, or less than pocket change for either company, not the $1 billion or more Oracle had said it wanted.

Jurors were also unable to decide if the portions of Java code that it copied could be protected by the long-established doctrine of Fair Use, under which certain infringements can be excused. Google lawyers pounced on this, and said they would move for a mistrial.

The conclusion is that Oracle proved at least part of its argument, but failed to prove the dramatic injury it said it had suffered. It also proved that Google knew that it needed a license to Java in order to use the portions of Java that it did use. The complication there was the fact that one flavor of Java is compatible with other flavors of Java: It still operates under the old “write once, run anywhere” principle that Sun Microsystems envisioned when it created Java. Oracle still wants Google to take out a commercial license that would require Google to maintain Java compatibility with other platforms.

Still undecided — and this is the big issue that has the eyes of the software industry watching this case closely — is whether Oracle can prevail on the issue of protecting software APIs using a copyright in the first place. Jurors were instructed to proceed under the assumption that this was a matter of settled law, when in fact it is not. Judge William Alsup will decide on this issue later, and it is unclear exactly how the jury verdict in the first phase of this case will affect his decision.

Had Oracle won a more ringing endorsement from the jury, that portion of the argument might seem to be stronger. It’s an important point that Google argued against, saying APIs shouldn’t be subject to copyright protection, because they’re more like tools and techniques that programmers use to build software. You can copyright a given program because it’s unique, but you can’t copyright the language it’s written in. The possibly strained analogy I came up with before is this: You can copyright a musical composition like Miles Davis’s “So What,” but you can’t copyright the form of music known as jazz.

Oracle argued at trial that copyright law offers the only proper protection for original expression in software, mainly because software advances are incremental, building upon previous advances and innovations. Laws governing trade secrets and patents don’t get the job done. Oracle lawyers contended that copyright law, while still imperfect, protects innovations and advances at a more granular level, but mainly against copying.

Also still ahead is the patent phase of the trial, where Oracle will assert that Google violated Java patents in building Android. After that, there will be a third phase, where the two parties will wrangle over damages. So far, it seems — unless Oracle prevails in the patent portion — that there won’t be much to wrangle over.

At least for now, it appears that Google has escaped the worst of Oracle’s accusations. That was the conclusion of shareholders of both companies. Google shares rose by more than 2 percent on the news of the verdict yesterday, closing at $607.55 a share. Oracle shares fell by more than 1 percent to close at $27.92 a share. The case isn’t over, and Google hasn’t exactly come out of it looking virtuous. But if the point of defending against a lawsuit is to escape paying huge monetary damages, Google won the day.

Embedded below is the filled-out jury questionnaire:

Verdict


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