Google wins latest round against Oracle in Java case – but questions and clouds remain

Yesterday we saw the latest decision in the long-running legal spectacle of Oracle suing Google for allegedly infringing Oracle’s Java API.

Google defeats Oracle in Java code copyright case

I am not a lawyer, nor do I claim any depth of legal expertise.  And as engineers, its easy to dismiss these events as one tech giant looking to squeeze some money from another tech giant using their lawyers instead of their products.

But as engineers, these courtroom events should directly concern us.

The lawsuit is complex and has seen many developments over its five and a half years of litigation.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation has collected all the public documents related to the case in a relatively easy-to-follow format:

Oracle vs Google – a timeline

But from what I can ascertain, at issue is Oracle’s claim that Google infringed their intellectual property by adding APIs to Android that shared the same structure and purpose as APIs in Java, allowing code that would normally call the Java API to use the Android API instead to achieve the same result, thus facilitating portability and more rapid code development.

Oracle do not seem to be claiming that Google copied the actual code that implements the API, which I believe most of us would agree would be an infringement of Oracle’s intellectual property.

But by claiming ownership of the API, Oracle appears to be trying to lock competitors out and customers into proprietary models, yet still slapping the “open” moniker on in a cynical move driven by marketing, not technology.

As Andreas Gal, CTO of Mozilla notes:

“Because Oracle has means to control Java beyond source code, OpenJDK is about as open as a prison. You can vote on how high the walls are, and you can even help build the walls, but if you are ever forced to walk into it, Oracle alone will [decide] when and whether you can leave. Oracle owns much of the roadmap of OpenJDK, and via compatibility requirements, trademarks, existing agreements, and API copyright lawsuits (Oracle vs Google) Oracle is pretty much in full control where OpenJDK is headed.”

Andreas’ comments about “Oracle alone will [decide] when and whether you can leave” resonate with me.  As I travel across the United States meeting with Oracle users I hear a common sentiment;

Oracle makes the world’s best RDBMS and world-class Enterprise software, but as a strategic business partner, their aggressive practices with regards to contracts, software licensing and auditing mean that many customers would like to “divorce” them.

Oracle has created an environment where it is not only difficult to move off their infrastructure but has made it prohibitively expensive to even enforce your contractual rights.  In the Mars-v-Oracle case, where Mars sought to enforce their contractual right to not pay for not running Oracle on servers in a VMware environment, Oracle demanded and got 233,089 pages of supporting documentation from Mars.

Mars ultimately appears to have prevailed in the case, but most CTOs I talk with are too busy trying to run their business to spend months or years in litigation with an army of lawyers from one of their strategic business “partners”.

As an investor I can understand Oracle’s predicament.  Although the company has reported robust growth in their cloud business over the past few quarters, on-premise software license revenue still accounts for 70% of the company’s revenue, cloud sales accounting for just 6% according to their latest quarterly results.

And it would seem that those software license revenues may contribute disproportionately to Oracle’s profits, as ComputerWorld reports that despite Oracle’s double-digit cloud growth, Oracle profits are down 24%

As CFO Safra Katz struggles with competitive head winds, squeezing more license dollars from captive customers is an obvious way of appeasing restless investors, but in my view it is a short term fix to a more serious long term problem.

I’d like to think of myself as a realist with occasional vacations to the land of cynics.  I am certainly tired of reading the endless obituaries of platform 2, often from writers whose sum total of hands-on IT is connecting their Macbook Pro in the free wifi in the local Starbucks.  But the winds of change are blowing, and the days of double digit growth in Platform 2 are over.

Today, if you want to be in a high-growth sector of IT, your choices are niche, or Platform 3.  Relational databases are not going away any time soon, and until the Platform 3 crowd understands that eventual consistency isn’t good enough for many applications they won’t be going away at all.

Nonetheless Mobile, Bigdata and Cloud are the growth trends of the future, and the decisions we make today with respect to embracing these technologies will have profound impact on the success of our respective organizations and our own careers going forward.

With that in mind, should we partner with organizations and people who embrace the concepts of customer choice and workload mobility, or a company who talks the talk of Cloud, yet still cripples workload mobility with a licensing model that is fundamentally incompatible to the way most customers and clouds work, take an overtly combative stance to customers who want to consume their products, and appears to believe it can use its extensive legal resources to claim ownership beyond that which intellectual property laws were created to protect.

CNet reports that Oracle plans to appeal the latest decision.  I will watch this ongoing legal and technology drama with interest.  You should too.



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