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Oracle v. Google Copyright Case: The Road Ahead

The partial verdict jurors reached was just the end of round one in a three-round bout between Google and Oracle.

The partial verdict reached in the "tech trial of the decade" between Oracle and Google was just the end of round one in a three-round bout between the industry behemoths.

That first phase dealt with copyrights. The second phase, which begins Tuesday, focuses on alleged patent infringements by Google. Following that will be phase three, which will determine damages in the case.

While the jury submitted a verdict to the court on the first phase of the trial, most of the substantive issues from the phase persist.

For example, the jury decided that Google infringed on Oracle's intellectual property when the search giant lifted a number of application program interfaces from Java, which Oracle acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems in 2010, for its mobile operating system, Android.

However, Google's defense of its action -- that use of the APIs constituted a "fair use" of the code -- was not decided by the jury. Since the case began, both Google and Oracle have argued that Judge William Alsup should decide the fair use issue.

Alsup, though, seems intent on having the jury settle the matter. He assigned the question to them during the first phase of the trial and has suggested that the question be resubmitted to the jury after the patent phase is finished.

The jury's failure to decide the fair use issue in its verdict in phase one has prompted Google to file for a mistrial in the case. Alsup is expected to rule on that motion soon.

What's more, whether those APIs can be copyrighted in the first place also remains in question. Historically, APIs have not been subject to copyright. And recently, the European Union affirmed that notion.

"To accept that the functionality of a computer program can be protected by copyright would amount to making it possible to monopolize ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development," the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in a case involving the SAS Institute and World Programming.

Oracle claims, however, that the Java APIs are sufficiently complex to deserve copyright protection.

That question is on Alsup's plate, too. He has set a May 14 deadline for Google and Oracle to submit their arguments on the question to him.

The question is an important one for the entire high-tech sector, but especially for "cloud" providers, many of them users of APIs cloned from Amazon Web Services. If Alsup rules that companies can copyright their APIs, those cloud providers would suddenly become the target of lawsuits.

The second phase of the trial is less complicated than the first. It involves two patents and is expected to last about two weeks.

Damages will be considered in the last phase of the case. Oracle originally asked for a billion dollars in damages and a permanent injunction against Google from using infringing code. Most of that would come from the alleged copyright violations, as experts peg the maximum damages for the patent infringements to be $150,000.

Oracle also wants a cut of any profits Google may have earned by using the infringing code, a demand that Alsup reportedly said "bordered on the ridiculous."

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.


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