Google and Oracle's coding confusion

Google and Oracle's legal tussle over Java has been an exercise in jury confusion, but underneath all the jargon is an outcome that could permanently change how software is developed.

Are you confused by the odd drama that has been playing itself out in a San Francisco courtroom between two of the titans of the technology industry, Oracle and Google? If not, then you should be.

It is a case that turns on abstruse arguments to do with the interaction of software code and copyright laws that were not written with such digital forms of expression in mind.

Even the companies’ own chief executives, Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Google’s Larry Page, have had trouble from the witness stand answering questions on technical concepts that can only have befuddled a non-expert jury.

Also, depending on whom you listen to, the case is about everything or nothing. Either the future of Google’s Android operating system - and possibly much of the open-source software world - is at stake, or the eventual costs of this trial will be counted only in bruised corporate egos, along with minimal damages and licensing fees.

At the heart of the dispute is a clash of the “open” and “closed” software worlds. These have become notoriously slippery terms: any tech company trying to put itself on the side of the angels likes to describe its approach as open while denouncing its rivals as closed.

So it is ironic that Oracle, famous for its aggressive business tactics, should be the one defending the open - in this case, the Java programming language it acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems. The code was designed to make it possible for software applications to run on many different operating systems without the need for modification.

It is Google, the self-professed “do not be evil” company, that is being forced to explain why - after failing to reach a deal with Sun to license Java - it felt it could just use the technology anyway.

The main issue the rival armies of lawyers have been lining up around concerns 37 of the application programming interfaces, or APIs, that act as the software “hooks” for other developers to write applications that run on Android. Google followed the Java formats but wrote its own code. In effect, its APIs feel like Java, yet they don’t copy it exactly. Hence the confusion over whether copyright should apply.

There is certainly an important issue of principle at stake. Java dates from the days when Sun was trying to prevent Microsoft’s Windows from completely dominating the software world. It needed a technology that would let applications travel widely, giving hope to software ecosystems beyond Windows. So if Google’s own “flavour” of Java threatens to Balkanise the technology - and, thanks to its growth, Android could eventually become the dominant form of mobile Java - then it makes sense to drag it back into the fold. But is that enough reason for Oracle to turn this into an expensive legal circus? Most technology pundits view it as a side-issue that has little bearing on the wider health of the Java ecosystem. If so, then something less obvious is at stake.

One possible hint of Oracle’s longer-term goal may have come early in the trial, with the revelation that it considered entering the mobile software business itself after buying Sun. It looked at acquiring Research In Motion or Palm and considered creating its own software from scratch. Taking up the next best tool it has to hand - Java - could be one way for it to extend its reach further into mobile software. Were Oracle to win its case, Google would have to seek a licence for Java or face the unpalatable option of rewriting its APIs, making them incompatible with existing Android apps.

Besides the fees, such an outcome would leave Oracle with a bigger say over how Android operates. Future versions would have to reflect any changes made to Java - a potentially cumbersome process.

Exactly how Oracle would exert that influence and what it might hope to get out of it are two of the murky questions this would raise, but it can’t be a prospect relished by Google. So far, the jury has delivered a mixed verdict and the court has yet to rule on whether APIs are even copyrightable. Meanwhile, by taking potshots at Google, Oracle has threatened to open a much bigger can of worms in the software world. Were the court to find that software APIs are subject to copyright, it would raise a host of thorny questions for an industry that relies on many different techniques to make its products work together effectively.

There have already been dark warnings that it could become harder for companies to reverse-engineer their rival’s technologies to create compatible products. The interaction of open-source and commercial software, which exist in different legal spheres, could also become tangled up in copyright disputes.

It is impossible to tell how far the ripples might travel. But most in the software world would rather not find out.

Richard Waters is the FT’s West Coast Managing Editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012

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