Two tech heavyweights are about to start the legal fight of the century in a California courtroom: Google and Oracle‘s high-profile battle over intellectual property begins today with jury selection. The stakes are no less than the future of Android.
Oracle sued Google in 2010 over its use of Java, a software platform Oracle obtained from its acquisition of Sun Microsystems earlier that same year. Java is actually free to use without licensing it, but when Google developed its Android mobile operating system, it used many of Sun’s Java APIs (application programming interfaces) so Android developers could create apps with Java.
Oracle says that’s a no-no, and sued Google over seven of its Java-related patents. A judge threw out many of Oracle’s claims, leaving just two patents in question. Talks between the two companies — which saw CEOs Larry Page and Larry Ellison meet in person — weren’t fruitful, so the case is going to trial.
While many of the IP cases recently making headlines have centered around patent infringement, the Google-Oracle showdown is different. Oracle claims Google actually violated its copyrights on Java, as a language. Oracle says that in creating the Java-based parts of Android, Google copied its Java APIs wholesale.
Google doesn’t deny this. However, it says there’s nothing wrong with what it’s done and makes the wholesale claim that APIs and programming languages shouldn’t be entitled to copyright protection.
Google’s argument is that programming languages are merely the tools software developers use and aren’t subject to copyright, though the programs they make with them are. It says Oracle is trying to copyright an idea rather than an expression — one of the main distinctions about what can be copyrighted and what can’t.
Not so fast, Oracle says. In its brief, it says copyrights for APIs should be allowed since they are “original expressions” in software, which can’t otherwise be protected by either trade-secrecy law (since they’re easily reverse-engineered) or patent law (since it’s too broad).
Since talks have failed, here we are. As the trial progresses, there’s still a decent chance of a settlement, but the stakes are high on the verdict.
If Oracle prevails, and Google doesn’t opt for a full license on Java, Android could fundamentally change. If Google changes Android so it doesn’t use Java, it would mean every app would need to be re-coded from the ground up. The platform is already mired with fragmentation — such a change would essentially shatter Android into a thousand incompatible pieces.
Of course, there’s every chance Google will win, which would put Android in the clear. Predictably, this is the outcome developers tend to favor, as “independent developer” Malcolm Barclay tells the BBC, “It would be utterly ridiculous to think that using an API could infringe upon the intellectual property rights of an open platform. … It would be the equivalent of buying a music CD and suddenly finding someone wanted to charge you for listening to track 10.”
Who do you think should win the Oracle-Google trial? Have your say in the comments.