Friday, June 1, 2012

Trying to digest Oracle v. Google

So, in the end, what are we to make of Oracle v Google?

As Judge Alsup pointed out, "This action was the first of the so-called “smartphone war” cases tried to a jury". It was a major case, litigated by top counsel on both sides, heard by a judge and jury in the country's most tech-savvy area. It clearly means something. But what?

There are no shortage of opinions about what it might mean.

First, we should note that the two parties to the case have their own opinions about what the ruling represents:

  • Oracle distributed a widely-quoted statement that stated:
    Oracle is committed to the protection of Java as both a valuable development platform and a valuable intellectual property asset. It will vigorously pursue an appeal of this decision in order to maintain that protection and to continue to support the broader Java community of over 9 million developers and countless law abiding enterprises. Google's implementation of the accused APIs is not a free pass, since a license has always been required for an implementation of the Java Specification. And the court's reliance on "interoperability" ignores the undisputed fact that Google deliberately eliminated interoperability between Android and all other Java platforms. Google's implementation intentionally fragmented Java and broke the "write once, run anywhere" promise. This ruling, if permitted to stand, would undermine the protection for innovation and invention in the United States and make it far more difficult to defend intellectual property rights against companies anywhere in the world that simply takes them as their own.
  • For their part, Google simply said:
    The court's decision upholds the principle that open and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for software development. It's a good day for collaboration and innovation.
Perhaps oddly, I think that both Oracle and Google are right about this. Google's implementation did fragment Java and break its core promise. But I am no fan of using the courts to limit what we can do with our computers, either, so I agree that it is indeed a good day for innovation.

Meanwhile, many other interested observers have weighed in with their own views:

  • Wired's Caleb Garling offers the assessment that: Judge Frees Google’s Android From Oracle Copyrights
    Alsup said that in cloning the 37 Java APIs, Google wrote 97 percent of the code from scratch and that the remaining three percent was lifted in accordance with the law. He also said that out of the 166 Java software packages controlled by Oracle, 129 were in no way infringed upon by Google. Oracle cannot legally claim, he argued, that it owns all possible implementations and pieces of the command structures of all 166 APIs.

    Alsup added, however, that his order does not mean that the Java API packages are free for all to use without license or that the structure, sequence, and organization of all computer programs may be “stolen.” Google, he said, had simply acted appropriately under the U.S. Copyright Act.

  • CNet's Rachel King feels that the ruling is narrow, not broad:
    it's a narrow ruling that only covers the APIs at question in the copyright phase of this case.
  • The folks at Groklaw, however, see it as a fairly broad ruling: Judge Alsup Rules: Oracle's Java APIs are Not Copyrightable, noting that the key paragraph in the ruling states that:
    Contrary to Oracle, copyright law does not confer ownership over any and all ways to implement a function or specification, no matter how creative the copyrighted implementation or specification may be. The Act confers ownership only over the specific way in which the author wrote out his version. Others are free to write their own implementation to accomplish the identical function, for, importantly, ideas, concepts and functions cannot be monopolized by copyright.
  • Florian Mueller, who has devoted an enormous number of hours to studying the case, cautions that there may still be much more to come:
    Judge Alsup's decision is unprecedented in the sense that no comparable amount of software code (400 class definitions including many thousands of methods and other definitions) has previously been held uncopyrightable despite being deemed to satisfy the originality requirement. Both sides of the argument had reasons to voice and defend their respective positions -- that's why this had to go to trial, and that's why it will go on appeal.
    In a follow-on posting, Mueller recalls a fascinating observation from one of the members of the Google legal team:
    More than seven years ago, one of the intellectual property lawyers on Google's defense team against Oracle, Greenberg Traurig's Heather Meeker, wrote an opinion piece for Linux Insider in which she argued that copyright protection of software is "tricky" because copyright focuses on expression while the value of software is in function, the very thing that copyright law wasn't designed to protect. With the exception of "wholesale copying" of entire products (which is what most software copyright cases are about) by "shameless counterfeiters", Mrs. Meeker says that "actually identifying software copyright infringement is like reading tea leaves" because "people using software to develop products rarely copy software without modification". She goes on to say:

    "The serious copyright battles are over the copying of bits and pieces, structures, design elements and so forth -- and applying copyright law to those cases is difficult, expensive and unpredictable."

  • The Heather Meeker piece, although written nearly a decade ago, is certainly worth re-reading in this context
    in the 1990s, when software patents exploded in the U.S., the PTO lacked sufficient institutional knowledge of prior art to weed out the obvious claims. This institutional knowledge exists mostly in the form of previously issued patents, so a sudden and dramatic increase in filings causes a prior art vacuum. This has been borne out empirically, in the sense that many U.S. software patents -- after being issued by the PTO -- are later invalidated due to obviousness based on prior art, in lawsuits where the patent holders try to assert them against infringers.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation, who I think are relatively clear thinkers about most topics of policy in the high tech world, came out strongly opposed to the notion of copyrighting an API:
    Treating APIs as copyrightable would have a profound negative impact on interoperability, and, therefore, innovation. APIs are ubiquitous and fundamental to all kinds of program development. It is safe to say that all software developers use APIs to make their software work with other software. For example, the developers of an application like Firefox use APIs to make their application work with various OSes by asking the OS to do things like make network connections, open files, and display windows on the screen. Allowing a party to assert control over APIs means that a party can determine who can make compatible and interoperable software, an idea that is anathema to those who create the software we rely on everyday.

So, after all that, where are we? Is it just that, in the end, there was "no steak, only parsley"?

Or is it more that, as Simon Phipps noted in his column at InfoWorld, we simply have a situation where deep pockets found the best justice money can buy:

While a company with the resources of Google can attempt to challenge each patent in turn at the Patent Office and get it invalidated, most smaller companies simply have to cut their losses and settle with the legally sanctioned extortioner.

I find myself rather ambivalent and certainly not much smarter than I was, two years ago, when this whole mess started.

One the one hand, I think that the whole field of Intellectual Property law, at least in the area of computer software, is a complete disaster. I think that Mike Loukides describes it well:

As I've frequently said, I invented linked lists and hash tables when I was in high school, but fortunately for the industry, software patents didn't exist back then. I don't claim to be unique; I'm sure many clever 17-year-old programmers have invented hash tables. Just about everything in this industry has been invented many times, by almost everyone who is vaguely clueful. Once you understand the way computing works, you fairly quickly understand why software patents should be extremely rare, if they exist at all. There's prior art everywhere, and almost every invention is "obvious" when looked at from the right perspective.

On the other hand, I'm furious with Google for splitting and splintering Java. It used to mean something to state that you had implemented Java. The Sun Microsystems team worked hard, for decades, to ensure that Java was Java was Java, and that in order to provide Java, you had to provide all of Java, and only Java. Even though it was ugly to see Sun suing Microsoft, I understood why they did it, and I think that, in the end, that suit made Java more valuable to everyone.

But Google's Android did the wrong thing by providing something that is like Java, but isn't Java. There are many completely valid Java programs, important pieces of software, that don't run on Android, and I think it was wrong of Google to twist Java in this fashion.

So, there I am: the court case is over, the judge and jury have rendered their decisions, and life goes on.

My own, personal, opinion, is that in the end it is mattering less and less. Java's time has gone. Oracle are taking Java in a very different direction from where Sun took it. Java is being turned into the giant company enterprise back office language, where it will be used extensively in corporate application development, by giant companies like Oracle and IBM, but Java as a language for small teams, for hobbyists, for students, is no more.

Which is too bad.

Update: My father, reading about the same issues, had a tl;dr moment, and offers this nice summation, which I think captures the entire lesson elegantly and briefly:

It turns out patent and copyright are really all about power, and not about ideas.

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