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What Happens If Oracle Owns Android?


Sitting on the back burner is a lawsuit by Oracle claiming Google liberally used unlicensed Oracle/Sun Java source code to build the Android gadget operating system, the OS which this week looks like the odds-on top competitor to Apple’s iOS in 2011.

The bottom line for the Android ecosystem is this: you may be making and selling products without clear legal title. Caveat emptor.

In the past week, a federal judge ruled against Google’s request for a summary judgment against Oracle after Oracle produced listings of apparently decompiled Java modules used in Java. What started out as scant evidence of bright-line illegality by Google is beginning to look like Oracle may have a strong case based on the volume of evidence. All this, of course, is before the lengthy discovery period where Oracle will undoubtedly parse every variation to the Android source code tree. So let’s fast-forward a year or two to a case decision and ask the question, “what happens if Oracle owns Android?” First, I overstate Oracle’s likely rights; even if it’s proven that Google stole misappropriated parts of Android, that does not mean Oracle gets control of Android, as in “ownership”. But a judge and jury could easily find against Google, with remedies that include:

  • Forcing Google to cease shipment of Android with Oracle’s code, thereby orphaning a market with a then-installed base of 200 million devices or so, and crushing dozens of smartphone and tablet vendors. This would be Apple’s nirvana;
  • Extract a stiff licensing fee for every gadget sold: Android is cheap today for gadget OEMs, but a $20 a phone Oracle tax would certainly change the economics for many gadget manufacturers;
  • Take a stiff, multi-billion dollar punitive damages chunk out of Google’s war chest.

And none of the above gets at one Oracle key concern: that Google took an open-source version of Java licensed by Sun for desktop PCs and ported it to run on gadgets as Android. The whole of Android may be litigated as well as its parts. Besides the potential for writing large and ongoing checks to Oracle, Google has few market options if Oracle prevails. One remedy is to remove the unlicensed code from Android and substitute new, uncontaminated code written in a so-called “clean room” by programmers without knowledge of the original Sun code. But writing and testing that code takes time, so Google may well start or already has started a clean-room project. It goes without comment that Google’s street cred goes to hell if it drops Android like a hot potato, so expect Google to dig in, starting with the legal trench-warfare that appears like it will draw the case out for years. The bottom line for the Android ecosystem is this: you may be making and selling products without clear legal title. Caveat emptor. Source: FOSS Patents: Oracle alleges Google derived code from specifications for hundreds of Oracle’s copyrighted Java files.

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