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CEOs of Oracle, Google square off in court over Java

Google denies its Android software for mobile devices infringes the patents and copyrights of Java, a programming technology that Oracle obtained when it bought Sun Microsystems.

April 17, 2012|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • In his testimony on the second day of the technically complex trial that could last as long as 10 weeks, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison painted Google as a freeloader. Above, Ellison arrives at a federal court building in San Francisco.
In his testimony on the second day of the technically complex trial that… (Paul Sakuma, Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO — It's being called the World Series of intellectual property trials.

Oracle Corp. has accused Google Inc.'s top executives of swiping a crucial bit of technology to build its Android software that now powers more than 300 million mobile devices.

The showdown between the two Silicon Valley heavyweights got underway in a San Francisco federal courtroom this week with a blast of high-tech star power as the dueling multibillionaire chief executives, Oracle's Larry Ellison and Google's Larry Page, took the stand.

A 12-member jury will decide the high-stakes dispute in which Oracle is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and an injunction that would force Google to pay licensing fees or stop using Oracle's Java technology to run Android.

Google, which is looking to become as dominant on mobile devices as it is on desktop computers, denies that its Android software infringes the patents and copyrights of Java, a programming technology that Oracle obtained when it bought Sun Microsystems Inc. in 2010 for $7.3 billion.

"It's potentially a very important trial," said Tyler Ochoa, professor at the High Technology Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law. "Android has become the No. 1 platform for mobile computing, and Oracle wants to get a piece of it."

In his testimony on the second day of the technically complex trial that could last as long as 10 weeks, Ellison painted Google as a freeloader. He told the jury that he met with former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in 2010 to discuss a joint project in which Google would use Oracle's version of Java in its Android software for smartphones "rather than their own version of Java." But the companies couldn't agree.

Google is "the only company I know" that hasn't taken a license for Java, Ellison said.

A lawyer defending Google told jurors that Oracle explored taking on Google in the smartphone market but decided to sue its would-be rival instead.

"They want to share Android's profits without having done a thing to bring that about," Robert Van Nest said.

Page began his testimony later in the day. He's expected to resume his testimony Wednesday.

UC Berkeley law professor Robert Merges said Oracle is looking to cut itself into the lucrative smartphone market with the Java technology that Sun Microsystems created in the mid-1990s to write programs that work on different operating systems and devices.

"People have been whispering for years that Google has built a great business on other people's technology," Merges said. "But Larry Ellison doesn't beat around the bush. He has never minded stepping onto center stage."

The trial is one of a growing number of intellectual property fights over smartphones, which account for a rapidly growing share of mobile devices.

Google bought the tiny start-up that made Android software in 2005 in a bid to maintain its dominance in search advertising and compete with Apple Inc. The first phone powered by Android software went on sale in October 2008, more than a year before Oracle bought Sun.

Silicon Valley companies for decades have used their patent portfolios to wring concessions from rivals. But until recently, Google didn't pay much attention to intellectual property and did not stockpile patents, even in the highly competitive realm of mobile devices.

The company, as well as handset makers including HTC Corp., Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. that use Android, are now being pelted with lawsuits from Apple and others. David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, has called the litigation barrage "a hostile, organized campaign against Android."

It's a strategic blunder that now haunts Google.

"Intellectual property assets are a very important piece of the U.S. economy," Ochoa said. "People are fighting over the spoils."

Google now is taking aggressive steps to bulk up its patent portfolio. Analysts say it can't afford to lose momentum as people shift their attention from desktop computers to mobile devices. But experts said the mounting lawsuits could increase the cost of making Android phones.

The trial is likely to wade into arcane details of programming languages and intellectual property law that only a programmer or a lawyer could easily grasp. The heart of the dispute is over "application program interfaces" or APIs, which help different types of software communicate.

Google makes Android freely available to device makers and software developers. It makes money from the mobile ads and apps sold on Android. The search giant has said its mobile advertising revenue now tops $2.5 billion, but it hasn't said how much of that money comes from Android devices.

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