The Jury has turned in a Verdict.
The jury has returned its partial verdict for the first (and perhaps most important) phase of the Oracle v. Google trial: The 12 jurors found Google had infringed on Oracle’s copyrights by its use of structure, sequence, and organization (SSO) of the 37 Java APIs used in Java.
For weeks now, the courtroom has echoed with arguments and testimony to determine one key principle: Are programming languages copyrightable, or aren’t they? And with this decision, twelve of our peers have declared that at least to some extent, they are.
The partial verdict was accepted by Judge William Alsup, who said last week in court, “I’m going to receive a partial verdict. I’m not going to let this work go to waste.”
Google uses the Java programming language in its Android mobile operating system. Oracle controls and owns Java, and it’s claiming that Google’s particular use of the language violates Oracle’s copyrights and patents.
Google has been arguing that no programming language, especially an open-source one (as Java is), can be copyrighted.
The first phase of this landmark trial was to settle this debate once and for all. However, based on what this reporter knows, both as a student of Java and as a firsthand observer in the courtroom, no one is more ill-equipped to make this decision than Judge William Alsup and the jury of San Franciscans selected for this trial.
As the American justice system dictates, the jury was selected by carefully avoiding anyone with expertise in the field. Engineers from multiple large Silicon Valley companies were turned away. The final jury members selected included a plumber, a nurse, a retired photographer, a store designer for Gap, a city bus driver, and a postal worker — in other words, folks with as little hope of understanding the deeply technical language and concepts they were about to encounter as I would have of understanding the intricacies of plumbing or the city’s public transit system.
First, Android founder Andy Rubin told the court that he had been under the impression that some of the Java APIs were copyrighted and that Google would need a license from then-Java-owner Sun to use them. Next, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the court that he thought Google didn’t need anyone’s permission to use those APIs and other parts of the Java language… mostly.
And on the Oracle side of the arguments, we learned that even though then-Sun CEO Jon Schwartz was publicly congratulatory about Android’s use of Java, in private email chains, he was angling for Sun to get licensing fees from Google.
Throughout the testimony, technical concepts came up frequently. In sitting on the courtroom’s hard, wooden benches, I saw the basics of Java explained in terms at times clear and at times quite obtuse. I felt like I understood the arguments both sides were presenting, but only because I had taken a computer science course or two and had used Java in writing simple programs in the past, myself.
The judge, on the other hand, had never dipped his toes into the waters of object-oriented programming. One of the most entertaining and excruciating parts of Schmidt’s testimony involved the tech exec explaining to Alsup how methods and classes work. Schmidt also had to explain to the jury what APIs are and how Java’s class libraries work.
At one point, Schmidt even had to stop the Oracle attorney during cross-examination because the lawyer wasn’t using precise enough language. The attorney was asking about APIs in very general terms, and Schmidt rightly refused to answer until the attorney worded the question correctly; an answer with a single word out of place could have had a radically different meaning from what was intended. At that point, Schmidt’s testimony involved a detailed discussion of the print method and an explanation of the layers of abstraction between hardware and human-readable interfaces.
I’m sure Schmidt was doing his best, but the explanations were still roundabout and ultimately unclear. What this courtroom needed was a couple weeks with a Java instructor, not the back-and-forth yammering and obfuscation they got from executives and attorneys (the more senior of whom seemed as oblivious to the inner workings of Java as did the judge and jury).
While I’m glad that, corporate marketing aside, most of the jurors were able to come into the courtroom free of prejudice, justice would have been much better served had the jury been possessed of even the most meager technical background. At this point, I am still not certain that we have any satisfactory answer to the deeply technical question first posed by this trial; all we have is the muddled opinions of twelve laypeople who’ve been subjected to a few weeks of contradictory legalese.
Two more phases remain in this trial; the second phase will cover patents, and the third and final phase will determine damages. VentureBeat will be covering this case, both in and out of the courtroom, to its conclusion.
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