Android patent battles coming to a head

Caroline Gabriel/Wireless Watch
16 Apr 2012

After the phoney wars of 2011, several of the major patent battles are coming to a head in law courts round the world in the early part of 2012, including what one judge called the “World Series of IP cases”, between Oracle and Google.

This trial kicks off on April 16 in San Francisco and should last for eight weeks, with Oracle accusing the search giant of stealing its Java copyright and patents for Android.

Google denies infringement and claims the Java technologies it uses are not covered by copyright, but the database giant claims 37 APIs used by Google are original and copyrightable expressions. The search firm responded, in a pre-trial hearing, that the APIs it uses are general purpose methods of operation that simply describe how to do a task. “Having two different ways of organizing something doesn't mean those are expression,” said Google lawyer Michael Kwun, at the March 28 hearing. It “just means those are two different ideas.”

“This is the World Series of IP cases,” US District Judge William Alsup told the firms‟ lawyers. “Only one winner comes out of the World Series.”

More than 97% of Android phones active in the past two weeks contain copied code, Oracle claimed in a filing on April 5. As well as about $1 billion in damages, it wants an injunction against offending products, a matter the judge would decide were Google to be found guilty. There have been extensive disputes over damages levels over the past six months and two rounds of settlement talks, in September and then this month, both failed.

But the stakes are far higher than damages claims. A judgement against Google would have more fundamental effects for the whole Android ecosystem than the many suits by Apple and Microsoft, which target individual devices and aim to increase the Android cost base, while spreading uncertainty about the rival platform. However, in most of these cases, the phonemakers under attack have their own patents with which to retaliate, or can find workarounds.

By contrast, Oracle is attacking the Android code base itself and as Simon Wardley, a researcher at IT advisory firm Leading Edge Forum, told NetworkWorld, a finding that APIs are copyrightable would be “fairly catastrophic” for US software industry as a whole. Functions commonly used by programmers in Android and elsewhere would become protected, potentially sparking a deluge of lawsuits as well as heightened uncertainty.

“If you're looking for a case where the US legal system might throw the golden goose under a bus, then this one is a pretty good candidate,” he said. As well as the copyright issue, Oracle also alleges that Google infringed two Java patents (down from an original suit based on seven), and a court appointed expert has assessed that, if found guilty, Google would be liable to $2.8 billion in damages (down from an original Oracle claim of $6.1 billion).

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