Larry Ellison and Larry Page, the bosses of Oracle and Google, share a name. But they clearly do not share the same view of a particular intellectual property (IP) matter. On 16 April, a jury began hearing arguments in a trial to determine whether Google’s Android operating system infringes copyrights and patents owned by Oracle. The outcome could shake up the Android world of more than 300m mobile devices.
The judge has called the trial “the World Series of IP cases”. That sounds about right — though both firms are far more global than the baseball contest in the analogy. Oracle is hoping to hit a legal home run — and win US$1bn in damages — by showing that Google failed to pay for its use of Java, a programming language which Oracle inherited when it bought Sun Microsystems in 2010, and on which Android is based. Google says it has done nothing wrong.
The trial is delving into the complex world of computer programming and providing fascinating glimpses of the inner workings of the two tech giants. In testimony last week, for instance, Ellison revealed that Oracle had considered buying Research in Motion, the maker of the BlackBerry. But at the heart of the case lies the thorny issue of whether copyright law applies to application programming interfaces, or APIs — the specifications that allow one piece of software to talk to another (in this case, allowing apps to run on Android).
Oracle claims that Google used 37 Java APIs in Android without paying, and that the APIs are covered by copyright because they are the creative work of Java’s developers. Google’s lawyers have responded by arguing that APIs are akin to words in a poem. Copyright can protect the poem itself, but not the underlying elements used to create it. Google — whose chairman once worked for Sun — has also made much of the fact that Java’s creators cheered the launch of Android.
If Oracle prevails, Google may have to reach a settlement with Ellison’s firm so it does not have to cut the offending APIs from Android, which would cause huge disruption. “Oracle wants a financial piece of Android,” says Tyler Ochoa, a law professor at Santa Clara University. A victory would also raise further questions about the legal status of APIs. Like a baseball game, this saga could have plenty of innings. — (c) 2012 The Economist