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Oracle-Google trial over Android has software industry on edge

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Oracle and Google are back in court debating a 6-year-old case tied to the Android operating system. The stakes extend well beyond the walls of the two Silicon Valley giants.

Developers are paying close attention because the ruling may determine how they can continue to use tools they've always relied upon for free.

Android, which powers over 80 percent of global smartphones, utilizes Oracle's Java programming language. Oracle's infringement lawsuit claims that certain ways Google uses Java are unauthorized, while Google argues that everything in its operating system falls within "fair use."

Oracle is suing for upwards of $9 billion, a number that Google calls "astronomical."

But more important than the money, which at the high end amounts to more than half of Google parent Alphabet's 2015 net income, is the precedent.

Oracle claims that Google "cherry-picked" 37 application program interfaces (APIs), in essence bastardizing Java and its ability to work properly across platforms. As one of the world's most popular programming languages, Java is the basis for applications written by millions of developers, who have never had to worry about how and when they use related APIs.

Furthermore, APIs have become the way that websites and apps easily communicate, integrate and share data. They're fundamental to the modern-day web.

Thus, the trial isn't just about Oracle and Google, even though a Google loss could result in a substantial payment and some technical changes to Android.

"What about everybody else who is going to be in the same situation when Java comes knocking on their door or anybody else who owns APIs?" said Christopher Carani, a partner at Chicago-based IP law firm McAndrews, Held & Malloy and a faculty member at Northwestern University School of Law. "Everybody has been going on with a gentlemen's agreement that they're not copyrightable so we can all borrow freely."

The case has been kicking around the courts for a half decade, ultimately ending up in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, where the latest trial began this week. Android creator Andy Rubin, who left Google in 2014, took the stand for about four hours of cross-examination on Thursday.

Should the jury side with Google and determine that Android's reliance on Java amounted to nothing more than fair use, the internet company will be victorious pending further appeal.

However, if it's decided that Google infringed, the case will move to the damages phase.

Google's defense has been that Sun, before it was acquired by Oracle, was an enthusiastic supporter of Android and that both Sun and Android considered developing Java-based phones before abandoning their efforts. Also, the APIs in question make up a tiny portion of the overall Android code.

The final point of Google's trial brief is that, "No matter what, Oracle will not be entitled to an injunction." Google cites historical precedent, Oracle's lack of a competitive product and the problems that shutting off Android would cause to the "tens of millions of users," as well as manufacturers that sell Android phones and carriers that have invested in selling and supporting the platform.

Adam Philipp, founder of Aeon Law, a tech IP firm in Seattle, said there's no chance of Android being killed. Rather, he said that injunctive relief is put on the table as a bargaining chip in the settlement negotiations.

In a case like this, "there's a perfectly suitable remedy, which is known as money," he said.