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Can Google Defend Open Source Software?

As you probably know, Google is currently entrenched in a battle with Oracle over the use of Java in Android. The trial may be only a month old, but the war began with the original suit filed in August 2010 for alleged copyright and patent infringement related to the Java programming language. However, this case is not just about Google defending its use of the technology or simply lining its pockets. The outcome of this trial has the potential to cripple the Android ecosystem and other open source projects as well.

The copyright phase of the trial has the attention of the software community. On May 7, 2012 a jury ruled that Google had violated Oracle’s copyright on 37 APIs, but could not decide if the violation was an acceptable level of fair use. Judge William Alsup of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California has been tasked with ruling on the big question: Can the structure, sequence, and organization (SSO) of an API be covered under copyright law?

If Judge Alsup finds in favor of Google and decides that the SSO of an API cannot be copyrightable, Oracle will be rewarded a maximum of $150,000 in statutory damages for each of the two counts brought against Google.

However, a ruling in the opposing favor would send toxic ripples throughout the software industry. Google would be required to attain a license through Oracle and pay significant royalties so long as they continue to produce Android. Oracle would then have the ability to charge a licensing fee to all Android manufacturers. Whether Android remains free or not is critical not only to phone manufacturers, but to Android’s push into other embedded vertical markets as well. Android developers are already hesitant to venture beyond the smartphone/tablet arena because of the additional engineering work required to extend the Android platform beyond such applications, and licensing/royalty concerns would only amplify that hesitation.

The licensing requirement would resonate throughout open source projects. Regardless if the license is free or not, programmers may potentially steer away from using Java in favor of other programming platforms. Open source platforms like Linux would be in jeopardy because of their use of foreign APIs (portions of Linux APIs duplicate those from commercial software). To top things off, programmers would no longer be able to implement “clean room design” to reverse engineer and replicate software.

This case is far from over as appeals are expected to follow. Google has already moved for a mistrial as a result of the jury’s split verdict over the fair use question, over which Judge Alsup is currently deliberating.  For more information on litigation surrounding Android please see our past blog post: Will Legal Battles Jeopardize Android’s Rise to Dominate the Device Market? Stay tuned as VDC Research continues to follow Oracle v. Google. 

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