Oracle vs. Google Trial Gives Judge, Jury Crash Course in Open Source

NEWS ANALYSIS: The judge and jurors are getting a crash course in open-source software development on a very public stage in a case that could affect IT for generations.

Oracle's lawsuit against fellow IT giant Google charging that it illegally used off-limits parts of Java to build its Android mobile device operating system ended its first week on April 20. However, the conversation is only getting started: This trial has been projected to last for another seven to nine weeks.

The question on the minds of many people is simple: Why?


Well, it turns out that most folks -- most importantly, presiding federal court Judge William Alsup and the 12 jurors -- clearly do not understand enough about the technical aspects of the case. These include virtually everything the case involves: the Java franchise as maintained by Oracle, the GNU Public License, application programming interfaces (APIs), Java APIs versus the code itself, Android operating system development, mobile device application development, the open-source community, freely downloadable software -- we could go on, but that's sufficient for now.

Software Development 101 Being Taught

It is quite apparent that a lot more education needs to be administered in the courtroom; this will comprise much of the conversation during the next few weeks of the trial. Most people in the world certainly are not software development-savvy, so this is to be expected.


At the copyright and patent trial in federal court in San Francisco, which began April 16, Oracle is charging Google with stealing parts of its Java software suite to help build its highly successful Android mobile device operating system. Oracle is seeking about $1 billion in damages and a possible injunction against Google to use the software.

We can expect to see a lot more technical information to be imparted from both sides of the case this week and in weeks to come. Jurors' eyes undoubtedly will gloss over in boredom. But this is all very important in making a final decision in the case.

Java's APIs, which are the detailed specifications, software and techniques that put the Java language into action, are at the heart of this high-stakes dispute. This could indeed become a landmark case in IT history because it will define for legal purposes whether an API is copyrightable, patentable or neither.

Lay Jury Causing Worry

There are those who are uncomfortable about a jury of non-IT people making a decision that so profoundly could affect the future of the software industry -- that it is far too technical a topic to be decided by people with only a cram session in what all these terms mean.

"This dispute never should have been in court in the first place," one respected industry veteran, who requested anonymity, told eWEEK. "Oracle and Google had plenty of opportunities to make an agreement on how to use Java. Everybody uses Java. And everybody knows that you take out an open-source license to use it commercially. This is not a difficult concept. Oracle is the corporate maintainer; all Google had to do is fill out the form and make the deal."

Google, obviously, is pretty certain that the APIs will also be considered by the court as part of the open-source Java package. This takes some arrogance, the source said, because it is strictly a presumption.

Does this also indicate that Google is banking upon the jury to not fully understand the nature of Java and its many threads into various IT communities, such as enterprise, open source and mobile development? That would also be a presumption.

Google 'Rolling the Dice'

"They [Google] are rolling the dice," the source told eWEEK. "The final decision may well change the course of future software development because the APIs are inextricably linked to that development, and this case will legally define APIs as separate for years to come."

Android, released in 2008 by Google to partners such as Samsung, HTC and other manufacturers for smartphones and tablet PCs, now runs more than 300 million mobile devices.

Oracle lead attorney Michael Jacobs asserted on April 16 that Oracle "will prove to you from beginning to end ... that Google knew it was doing the wrong thing. This case is about Google's use, in Google's business, of somebody else's property without permission," Jacobs said. "You can't just step on someone's IP because you think you have a good business reason for it."

Google contends that Oracle was planning on getting into the smartphone business itself, would have been a competitor to Android and simply wants to horn in on the profits of the popular open-source mobile device system.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison acknowledged in his April 17 testimony that Oracle did at one time consider acquiring Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry smartphone, and Palm Computing before it was bought by Hewlett-Packard.

Chris Preimesberger is eWEEK Editor for Features and Analysis. Twitter: @editingwhiz

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...