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Q & A: What's Oracle-Google Lawsuit All About?

Tue, 08/24/2010 - 8:39am
Maisie Ramsay

On Aug. 12, news broke that Oracle had sued Google over its use of Java technology in its Android operating system. After an uproar from the open source community and a strongly worded statement from Google, everything went silent.

Wireless Week spoke with Al Hilwa, the program director for IDC's application development software research division, about the suit and what could be going on behind the scenes at Oracle and Google. Here's an edited transcript of the discussion.

Wireless Week: How can Oracle be suing Google over an open-source technology?

Al HilwaAl Hilwa: There are all kinds of open-source lawsuits that involve litigation of license terms. Open-source code is protected with a variety of different licenses. One of the most protective licenses, the General Public License, says that in order to add any additional piece of code, you have to return that into open source under the same license. It's actually very protective for the owner.

Let's say you own a technology you make open source so it becomes widely used and popular, but you don't want anyone else to compete with you on it. A general public license is perfect for that, because if a competitor grabs it, they can't compete head-to-head on the licensing business. If they add any new innovation to it, they have to make it open source, which takes the steam out of monetizing the license. That's what Sun/Java is. It's a general public license, so it's actually quite well-protected from competition for the owner, in this case Oracle.

WW: What's Oracle's goal with this lawsuit?

Hilwa: Oracle wants Google to license Java properly, like pretty much everyone else does. Licensing Java means you have to make it compatible and compliant. Oracle doesn't want fragmentation of Java. They don't want technology out there that attracts Java developers with things that look and smell like Java, but aren't really Java. Licensing it properly is their primary goal. Once Oracle does that, there's going to be some financial settlement, perhaps worth multiple tens of millions, done with Google.

WW: Is Google really fragmenting the Java platform?

Hilwa: Many people said as much when Google came out with Android. The only way you can interpret Google as not fragmenting Java is if you take the technology in a specific domain that's a niche space, like just mobile phones; just one narrow application area potentially not served by Java standards. In that case, maybe you can come up with some rationale about why Google isn't really fragmenting, but adding to Java.

But there are two problems to this reasoning. There's already technology that supports mobile development for Java, Java ME. Maybe Google decided that wasn't good enough or didn't want to be subservient to Oracle. The other problem is that Android, which uses Java for its front-end development, has the potential to be a gigantic platform if its momentum continues. It will be used for PCs, tablets, netbooks – pretty much everything five to 10 years from now.

WW: Is Oracle attacking the open-source community with this lawsuit?

Hilwa: I have seen this interpreted as a gigantic attack on open source, but I don't see that. Most large, proprietary companies have had to come to understand open source and leverage it and Oracle is one of them. They're pretty active in certain areas of open source. I don't know what else is expected for a company like Oracle to do, who essentially monetizes licenses in the traditional way.

If the question was meant to imply that Oracle wants to continue to leverage intellectual property for financial gain, then yes, absolutely that's what Oracle is doing. So are Microsoft and everyone else, and then there are companies like Google who leverage software indirectly through advertising. 

There's this understanding that open source is all about a communal sharing of nonprofit code for nonprofit reasons. That's not really true. Three-quarters of what passes for open source is actually code that's leveraged heavily by for-profit entities. Open source has become a strategic way to launch new products. Companies lock it in a general public license, allowing them to continue to sell commercial licenses on it, with open source as a security blanket to encourage adoption. This notion that open source is all about freeness and non-protection of intellectual property is not legitimate.

WW: What implications does this have for Android?

Hilwa: On the face of it, I don't think anyone is going to make any immediate decisions based on this lawsuit. Under the table, there may be discussions among people who leverage Android who suspect they're in violation who may attempt to license or cross-license from Oracle. This could translate to an additional agreement down the road.

The lawsuit could also enter into the decisions of people who are considering using Android for more devices down the road. Certainly, competitors to Android will use it as one of the drawbacks of going down that route. Google will watch carefully what happens over the next couple months to help decide how much to settle for – or not.

WW: You were talking before about how Google has fragmented Java in its creation of Android, which Oracle's not too happy with. Could the lawsuit force Google to change that?

Hilwa: That's the primary goal of this lawsuit: to force Google to the table to discuss how Java can be evolved to accommodate Google's needs, so that the two forks can become a licensed standard of Java. My understanding is that there were discussions between Google and Oracle but they went nowhere. Google's goal is to make this code available for free to everyone, without licensing. That's where it implemented its own technology underneath Java's language and where the patent infringements are being alleged.

WW: It seems like Oracle is being pretty aggressive about its intellectual property rights. Does this lawsuit mark a change in the level of enforcement on Oracle's behalf?

Hilwa: I don't see that this really indicates anything about open source or Oracle's stance on open source. Oracle's stance on open source will remain what it used to be.

If you look at Oracle's history, there are not a lot of patent infringement lawsuits. Most companies like Oracle do tons of this patent negotiation and discussion behind the scenes every day with partners and competitors. It's just the norm in the industry. It's only when companies don't agree that this kind of stuff bursts out into the public domain.

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