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Oracle and Google have at it, as APIs go to court

Apps have crept into broader public consciousness in recent years thanks to mobile applications, and now APIs are getting wider attention. In fact, Java APIs stand as a very central part of the Oracle-Google Android trial that got underway this week in San Francisco. The legal wrangling comes at a time when APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are increasingly seen as “open” and “public,” thanks in part to the strategies and successes of  Facebook, Twitter and (none other than) Google APIs.

Almost two years ago, Oracle launched its patent and copyright suit against Google, claiming the search giant illegally grabbed Java intellectual property when it created its Android mobile device software around Java. The case now faces a 12-member jury that will decide if Google violated Java programming copyrights that have been brought up by Oracle.  The first week of testimony showed that APIs specifically, like software techniques generally, are complicated – and contentious.

Forgoing a Java license saved vendors of Android Smartphones millions of dollars, but that could change if Oracle prevails in court. Oracle became steward of the Java standard when it purchased Java-originator Sun Microsystems in 2009.

Both Oracle and Google have been in front of a judge since Monday and will continue to do so for a projected 10 weeks. Negotiations preceded the trial, but ended with the two companies indicating that they were not close to any agreement. Google was willing to pay up to a few million dollars while Oracle demanded hundreds of millions. Early estimates put Oracle’s claims at over $6 billion, but, as parts of Oracle’s case were pared down running up to trial, estimates of Oracle’s potential takes have slid down under $1 billion.

Prior to the trial, Oracle’s contentions seemed to focus on the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) that hosts the Java language at run time. In the first week, the trial has focused on Java APIs. While there is some consensus that a computer language such as Java cannot be patented, Oracle contends that specific APIs using a language can be copyrighted.

Tech’s biggest “Larries” – Larry Ellison of Oracle and Larry Page – testified in the first week of the trial, along with Mark Reinhold, Oracle Java Platform Group chief architect, and Timothy Lindholm, Google engineer, and others. Both Reinhold and Lindolm were formerly with Sun.

According to Oracle-Google trial documents, Google is asserting that “computer programming languages are not copyrightable, and neither are Oracle’s APIs.” Google says that “the Court should hold that the structure, selection and organization of the APIs are un-copyrightable.”

In its own filing, Oracle maintains that the Java APIs in question required effort and time to build, and that they do come under copyright protection. The company’s latest statement states, “Copyright protection of a computer language is also consistent with the Copyright Act’s statutory purpose to ‘promote the creation and publication of free expression’ by rewarding authors.”

Java’s creation came somewhat before the advent of a popular open-source software movement. In its last days, Sun Microsystems tinkered with open source strategies for Java. An OpenJDK was embraced as part of that effort. In turn, Google used OpenJDK as part of its effort to create the Android platform for mobile applications.

The nature of APIs proved to be difficult to describe as the first week of the trial unfolded, as Oracle’s Reinhold sought to explain what has become a lynchpin of modern application integration. In an earlier computer era, APIs were usually proprietary, shared in the form of voluminous documentation, and shared often only as part of big, expensive corporate licensing deals. This has changed somewhat of late as Web giants like Twitter and Facebook have created “public APIs” that require no license.

Reached for comment via e-mail, software patent critic and software industry veteran Lou Mazzucchelli said, “Software patents should be abolished. Others are starting to wake up to this.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “if there is a clear copyright violation, that is a slightly different story.”

It is early in the trial and the outcome is uncertain, Mazzucchelli concludes. “Not much in this case seems to be clear, so far,” he says. – Ryan Punzalan and Jack Vaughan

What do you think? Are the people who pay for Java licenses being foolish?

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Reader BillaBob writes us: The issue is managed risk in an era of ambiguous IP ownership. By licensing I am pay indemnification insurance against the cost of suits or uncertainty surrounding use of derivative software containing the software that these days always originated elsewhere. I am less clear that software can’t/shouldn’t be copyrighted vs a more direct mechanism needed for compensating developers. Is it a one-time fee, do all products have a limited life, is there a tiering mechanism? Sending these matters to an antiquated court system for adjudication is absolutely broken and can only serve to muddy matters as judgments granted in one venue are reversed in others due to differences in understanding by judges struggling to interpret concepts of ownership that stretch the bounds of credulity.