Oracle v. Google

If you try to throw around big numbers in front of the jury just to inflate damages, you are doing so at your own risk; there is no proof that Java is worth $7.4B. I am suspicious of your motives.

— Hon. William Alsup, U.S. District Judge, as reported in Today’s the Day.

Today was indeed the first day of trial in Oracle v. Google, the once massive patent and copyright suit by Larry against… Larry. Good reportage, as usual, over on Groklaw. The quote above was from an exchange between the trial judge and counsel for Oracle regarding the content of slides Oracle wanted to use in their opening statement. Google of course objected to the “inflated” figure, especially in light of the fact that aggressive pretrial motion practice, as well as the negative results of re-examinations of their patent claims by the the USPTO, has resulted in a devaluation of Oracle’s potential damages from billions to a few million dollars. The judge was actually giving the lawyers good advice. The last thing you want to do in a jury trial is wreck your credibility during the opening. There’s plenty of time for that during the trial proper, or in summing up.

Oracle’s lawyer, Michael Jacobs, is a tech litigation veteran though, who successfully defended Novell against SCO. Of course prosecuting a civil case can be a lot harder than defending one. The consensus of those who sat in on the opening was that Jacobs was brilliant.

A major claim in the case by Oracle is that Google had “broke the basic rules of the Java programming community” by not agreeing to the GPL (the General Public License under which Sun had open sourced the Java core) before using the programming language in Google’s Android operating system. As adeptly reported by Groklaw, this raises the question of whether a programming language, and its APIs, can be copyrighted. Oracle says yes, while Google says no.

To be honest, up until now my preference would be that to the extent it is entitled to legal protection, software be protected under copyright. That’s mostly due to my opposition to software patents, which I think are inimical to “the Progress of Science and useful Arts”. That’s a position that both Oracle and Google would disagree with, as would, unfortunately, the courts (probably the only way to put the genie back into that particular bottle at this point would be a constitutional amendment).

As to the question of whether a programming language should be protected, my inclination from a public policy standpoint would be that it should not. Programming languages are more like mathematical “frameworks” such as Calculus than a novel, or even a computer game such as “Call of Duty”.

No matter what the facts turn out to be, for me the resolution of this basic legal issue will be the ost important result to come out of this case.