Oracle Sues Google Over Java IP in Android Phones

- For more on this story, read: "Analysts: Oracle's Lawsuit Against Google Casts Shadow on Java's Future "

On Thursday, Oracle filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that, in developing its Android mobile operating system, the Internet search giant infringed on seven patents associated with the Java Platform, which Oracle acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems in January.  

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that Google "knowingly, willingly, and unlawfully copied, prepared, published, and distributed Oracle America's copyrighted work," including code, documentation, specifications, and code libraries. The company is asking for an injunction restraining Google from engaging in any further violation of its copyright, and relief from the "monetary loss to its business, reputation, and goodwill" it has suffered because of it. Oracle is asking for triple damages and a jury trial. The complaint lists the following patents: 6,125,447; 6,192,476; 5,966,702; 7,426,720; RE38,104; 6,910,205; and 6,061,520.

The Java language is open source, and so is much of the Java Platform, but not all of it. Parts of the Java Platform Micro Edition (Java ME), which is the most ubiquitous OS in mobile environments, are proprietary.

"Google has taken some interesting approaches to skirting Sun's intellectual property, which Sun didn't appear to mind, because they were more interested in seeing Java spread and become an important platform in the mobile space," said George Reese, CTO of enStratus and author of Java Database Best Practices (O'Reilly Media, May 2003). "But the mobile markets are growing, and Oracle clearly wants a piece of that pie."

"The lawsuit in essence accuses Google of hiring former Sun engineers and copying patented Sun technologies to build their own version of the technology without paying Oracle license fees," explained Forrester Research analyst John Rymer. "I don't think the paying of license fees is under dispute; Google doesn't pay Oracle Java licensing fees. At issue is whether or not engineers working at Google and on Dalvik [the Android VM] could implement their own versions of class loaders and other critical Java IP without having to pay Oracle for the privilege."

Google acquired Android, Inc. in 2005, and in 2007 unveiled the Android mobile device platform. The company began distributing Android as open source software under an Apache License about a year later. Google claims that 21 handset makers, including Motorola and HTC, are currently offering 60 Android-based devices, which are distributed by 59 carriers.

Just this week, industry analysts at Gartner Group reported that shipments of Android-based devices outpaced shipments of iPhones in the second quarter of this year -- an industry first. With 10.6 million units sold, that's 17.2 percent of the market, up from 1.8 percent.

"[Android] was on the cusp of generating a lot of revenue," Rymer said. "I have to believe that others threatened by Google's Android are very happy about this lawsuit."

On Friday, the blogosphere was buzzing with opinions and speculation about the lawsuit. In his blog, software developer Florian Mueller, who founded the NoSoftwarePatents campaign that contributed to the European Parliament's rejection of a proposal for European software patent legislation, wondered if Oracle might be asserting patent rights against open source software:

"While there is serious doubt about the full compliance of many Android-based products with open-source rules, it appears to me that Oracle asserts the patents in question against components of Android that are open source. Even if some Android-based or Android-related products may include components that don't meet open-source criteria, I find it impossible to imagine that the patents Oracle tries to enforce here would be infringed only by closed-source components and not by Android's many open-source components."

Dana Gardner, President and Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, in his BriefingsDirect blog, noted the potential wider impact of Oracle's actions: "By going for Google's second of only two fiscal jugular veins in Android (the other being paid search ads), Oracle has mightily disrupted the entire mobile world -- and potentially the full computing client market. By asking for an injunction against Android based on Java patent and copyright violations, Oracle has caused a huge and immediate customer, carrier and handset channel storm for Google. Talk about FUD!"

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].