Following a closely-followed six-week courtroom trail, a California jury has found that Google did not infringe on two Java-related patents now owned by Oracle, likely clearing a major cloud from the future of Google’s “free and open” Android mobile operating system. The outcome is a disappointment for database giant Oracle and its notoriously aggressive CEO Larry Ellison, which had consistently insisted that Google knew it needed a license for Java.
During the first phase of the trial, the jury that Google had infringed on Oracle’s copyrights by copying a single nine-line function. Now that the jury has found Google did not infringe on Oracle’s Java patents, that means Google is only on the hook to Oracle for copying that single function. With trebling of damages, that could amount to as much as $150,000 — small change to companies the size of Oracle and Google, and not likely to even put a dent in the legal fees Oracle has incurred so far. The figure is also a far cry from the $1 billion Oracle had been seeking from Google for its re-implementation of Java.
Oracle has vowed to press on with the case. “Oracle presented overwhelming evidence at trial that Google knew it would fragment and damage Java,” Oracle spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger told Reuters.
Key issues brought out at the trial remain unresolved. During the copyright phase, the jury could not reach a decision on whether Google’s use of 37 Java APIs could be considered fair use — which means Oracle cannot currently collect any damages for Google’s use of the APIs. Of deeper interest to the entire software industry, District Judge William Alsup has reserved the question of whether APIs can be copyrighted at all as an issue solely for his consideration. He has not yet ruled on the matter.
Speaking with reporters after the trial, jury foreperson Greg Thompson revealed that the jury had been leaning strongly in Google’s favor both during the copyright and patent portions of the trial. According to Thompson, the jury was split nine to three in favor of Google on copyright issues — and Thompson himself was the lone holdout in favor of Oracle on the patent questions. Thompson eventually concluded that, despite his reservations, Oracle hadn’t met its burden of proof.
For Oracle to make its case, the jury would have had to have returned unanimous decisions in its favor.
The trial will now move into its damages phase, which should be straightforward given that Oracle can currently only expect to receive damages from Google’s copying of that single nine-line function.
Judge Alsup has not indicated when he may rule on the issue of whether APIs can be copyrighted, although some case-watchers expect his decision may come as early has next week. However, instructions to the jury during the copyright phase were to assume that APIs could be copyrighted.
For Oracle, that’s not great news. Even if Judge Alsup rules APIs can be copyrighted, the best Oracle can hope for is a new trial on at least the copyright matters, since the jury hung on the question of fair use. A finding that APIs are copyrightable would, however, have broad ramifications throughout the software industry — and Google would no doubt seek to appeal such a finding before any sort of new trial could begin.
If Judge Alsup judge rules APIs cannot be copyrighted, Oracle’s only recourse will be to appeal the ruling.
The result so far is a significant disappointment for Oracle, which in pre-trial motions was seeking damages in excess of $6 billion from Google for infringement. The was reduced to around $1 billion by the time the trail commenced — and now it appears Oracle won’t walk away with much of anything.