Dangerous Waters Ahead as Oracle Triumphs over Google in Court
On May 8th, the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals ruled that Google infringed on two patents held by Oracle in relation to the Java programming language which is used by Google in the development and implementation of Android, its popular smartphone operating system(OS); bringing a close to the Oracle Google Lawsuit. In this article, we look back at the events leading to the trial and also the implications of the court’s ruling on the future of software development and more importantly consumers, like you and I.
The Story So Far
The history behind this trial starts all the way back in 2005 when Google purchased a software development company called Android Inc.. Soon after the acquisition of Android Inc., Google began talks with Sun Microsystems, the original owner of Java. Soon after the acquisition of Android Inc. and the talks with Sun Microsystems began, Andy Rubin, the Android division head at Google, wrote an email stating that Google could either adopt Microsoft’s C# language to code the Android OS or “do Java anyway and defend our decision, perhaps making enemies along the way.”
In the following months, negotiations between Google and Sun for license to Java continued but failed to reach a deal. A few months later, Sun Microsystems was said to have offered Google a three-year license for Java at US$20 Million in addition to 10% of Google’s revenue made from Android with a cap at US$25 Million. Google unceremoniously rejected this offer.
A year after the rejection of this offer, Google publicly announced the active development of Android, the structure of which included, and still includes, a virtual machine called Dalvik. A virtual machine is essentially a layer of programming that allows a programs or applications to interact with the core operating system without containing the full set of codings required to initiate the functions natively. HTC would then release the first Android phone, the HTC Dream, about year after this.
Two years after the release of the HTC dream, in 2010, Java is acquired by Oracle, who then inherits the Java patents and copyrights as a result. Shortly after, this acquisition, Oracle’s legal team meets with Google’s lawyers to discuss allegations of patent infringement. It was during this time that Andy Rubin received and email from an engineer from Google, stating that Java alternatives “all suck” and that “we need to negotiate a license for Java under the terms we need.”
A few short days after this communique, Oracle accuses Google of infringing a total of seven Java patents and its Java copyrights in a lawsuit to which Google replies by denying any wrongdoing and refers to it as a “baseless attack” on Google and open-source developers.
A short year after it’s initial release, the Android OS manages to account for nearly one-third of all smartphone sales according to Canalys, a market analysis company. The same year, Google approaches the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to reexamine patent’s belonging to Oracle, arguing that they shouldn’t have been issued. This lead to the reduction of the initial seven patents in the suit to two. This same year, it was revealed via a court filing that Oracle was seeking damages between US$1.4 billion and US$6.1 billion which was ruled to be over reached by a presiding judge. After this, the CEOs of both Google and Oracle, Larry Page and Larry Ellison respectively, are ordered to hold settlement talks of which were fruitless. By this time, Gartner, a marketing analysis firm, estimates Android to account for more than 50% of phones sold. Months after the disastrous settlement talks the two companies are again ordered to hold settlement talks but, yet again, no settlement is reached. A month after which the initial trial began on April 2012.
The eight week jury trial which followed debated the validity of Oracles claims upon the patents and copyrights involved. In this initial trial, the patents and copyrights in question were argued to be prior art and as such the owner, Oracle, had the right to patent or copyright it. However, the licensing which was implemented for both Java Runtime Environment (JRE) was questioned and the implementation of Java in Android was also debated. Arguments continued on both ends for the validity of the claims placed by both parties. In the end, the presiding Judge ruled that the patents and copyrights in question were not applicable as the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) were as essential to programming as the programming language itself. As such, the case was ruled in Google’s favor and essentially set a precedent that would have been very important to the developer community. Oracle appealed the ruling.As such, after a long run in the courts, the U.S. Federal Court of appeals ruled on May 9th, that Google had infringed the copyright of Oracle by using the APIs in their programing of Android overriding the initial ruling, stating:
“We conclude that a set of commands to instruct a computer to carry out desired operations may contain expression that is eligible for copyright protection…”
The Precedent Set by The Appeal Ruling
This ruling sets an important precedent going forward in both the developer circles and even in the consumer world. Simply put, this ruling essentially states that anyone using APIs such as those found in the copyright and patents of Oracle in this case, are liable to be sued and also can be subjected to licensing fees.
“This is an opinion written by judges whose understanding of software comes from reading other judges’ opinions about software.” – University of Maryland professor James Grimmelmann.
When it comes down to it, this ruling has made it possible for anyone and everyone using a programming language to develop different applications on top of any platform, be it Android, iOS or even Windows, to charge for parts of the programming being taken advantage of by other developers, essentially creating a free for all legislative battle. The ruling showed the ignorance of the judge presiding in the matter of coding as these APIs serve as basis upon which other developers can build upon, similar to how initial research is done in science before breakthroughs are made.
“The decision seems to reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of how software works. And it could create serious headaches for companies that want to make their software compatible with that of competitors.” – Timothy B. Lee, Vox.com.
As such, while Oracle claims that this ruling is a step to drive innovation in software development, yet it doesn’t take into consideration the days, months, even years that software developers sacrifice in order to come up with the coding behind these APIs and the innovation and advancement that is fuelled by these APIs. Far beyond this, this opens the floodgates for companies such as Apple, Google or Microsoft to profiteer from developers who are developing applications for their platforms. This would be disastrous. Essentially, all the apps which we are getting for free on the platforms would essentially have to charge to make up for this. While Apple, Google, and Microsoft already charge developers for a percentage of their profits from their apps, the licensing fees that would possibly be incurred with the “licensing” of APIs would be immense.
Now these effects may not be immediately to consumers but eventually, down the road, these licensing costs and also immensely increased length of development will drive costs involved in the development of the simplest games such as the popular Flappy Bird to the most complex programs such as Office, which already costs an arm and a leg.The licensing fees that can possibly be incurred would also cost a huge increase in the prices of the smartphones, laptops and tablets. This one ruling can also increase the amount of litigation and legalities involved in software development.
There is only one saving grace in this, that Google would appeal this ruling and get it overthrown by a higher court. As with all legal tussles, we’ll have to wait and see.