What the final decision on Oracle v. Google really means

The jury decided yesterday that Google did not infringe on Oracle's patents related to Android. Fantastic news -- but the wider view offers little comfort

As James Niccolai reported yesterday, the jury in the Oracle-Google trial has found than none of the eight remaining claims in the two remaining patents was infringed by Google in Android as Oracle had alleged. From great heights of disaster, the case has been reduced to potential statutory damages on infringement of nine lines of code that the judge himself implies are trivial and obvious.

Rather than the original $6 billion damages, it's doubtful Oracle can hope for more than $32 million according to Steven Vaughn-Nichols. For that, APIs need to be declared subject to copyright (we won't know the outcome of the API copyright ability part of the case until next week when Judge Alsup deliver his opinion).

This is great news for the whole Android ecosystem. Oracle no longer has any grounds to request an injunction disrupting the flow of value or products, nor grounds to force per-unit royalty payments for these patents. Moreover, since the patents brought to trial were the best-of-the-best available, it seems unlikely that Oracle will be able to bring patent suits of this kind against Android again in the future.

While the specific news of the patent phase verdict is good news for most people, the case still tells a sad story about software patents. The complexity found by the jury shows why software patents fail to deliver on the contract with society that they should represent. Unlike real patents, software patents contain little of value to the programmer: no sample code, only stylized algorithms. Instead, they consist mainly of a list of ways a lawyer can assert that the patent has been infringed. Even then, they are linguistically complex, leaving juries scratching their heads to interpret.

While having the best-equipped aggressor chased away is a boost for Android, the woods are still full of trolls -- patent trolls, that is. So-called nonpracticing entities are companies that have acquired patents -- or through the failure of the rest of their business been left with patents, like Kodak -- and have no products of their own to defend. They spend their time taxing the innovation and hard work of others by threatening injunctions for patent violation if the players in the market for which they have bought a title don't pay their tributes. 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.

The outcome this time is fortunate, with the second phase of the trial concluded and the third phase cancelled. Now we have to await the final words of the judge and the inevitable appeal by Oracle.

I remember speculating once, a long time ago, that any attempt to enforce what I called "the Java compatibility bear-trap" -- the dragnet of patents, copyrights, and trademarks surrounding Java compatibility -- would need to be sure to succeed, because if it failed it would never work again. By bringing the case at all, Oracle has allowed the Android ecosystem to have far greater certainty than would ever have been possible without it. For this, at least, Oracle is to be thanked.

This article, "What the final decision on Oracle v. Google really means," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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