A win for innovation, interoperability & computing; a loss for originality

Apr 5, 2021

Not one but two long-drawn-out big-stakes lawsuits were in the news this week. First the mostly-good news.

Years ago a team led by James Gosling at Sun Microsystems invented a new computer programming language called Java. It was good, and its usage grew, and Sun kept improving it. Later, a startup called Android.com used the Java language and the same programming interfaces from the language to the runtime libraries - the API, or Application Programmer Interfaces. Later still, after the dot-com bust, Sun was acquired by Oracle. At the first JavaOne conference after the aquisition, Oracle helmsman Larry Ellison was on stage with outgoing Sun CED Scott McNealy; the pair were all smiles and cooperation. Ellison said "We welcome Google’s use of Java…​"

Later still, Oracle’s lawyers concocted a scheme to extort money (a mere few billion dollars) from Google. They’d claim copyright on the API. Nobody had ever seriously held that you could copyright an API, but that didn’t stop the man sometimes known as Larry "It’s not enough for me to win, the other guy has to lose" Ellison. They filed suit in 2010 - over a decade ago.

If Oracle’s claim were upheld, the frequent practice of re-implementing a compatible replacement for software would require paying (probably exorbitant) license fees. The entire Linux movement could crumble, since it is based on re-implementations of AT&T’s Unix (more on that in a minute) and their C compiler.

The lawsuit went ahead. The trial judge took the time to not only acquaint himself with the issues, but actually learned to program in Java. The trial ruled in favor of Google.

Oracle appealed. An Appeals Court ruled in Oracle’s favor. Google appealed to a higher level court. The second Appeals Court ruled in Oracle’s favor. Google appealed to the last stop, the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The case was heard by SCOTUS in October, 2020, during the pandemic and a very chaotic election campaign. Finally, this week, the Court released its ruling - in Google’s favor. So the Open Source movement, and anybody who just wants to build a better mousetrap without having to start from scratch, is safe. For the time being. Because the Court didn’t rule on all the substantive issues. This will return.

And AT&T’s Unix itself has had a long, strange history. The code has been sold to organizations, given away to universities, transferred among many different companies, and finally released for all time by a company called SCO, a derivative of the Santa Cruz Operation, one of the companies to who it was transferred. There were several lawsuits around this set of transactions.

Of course, there are companies who think they can get rich off anything. Another company that licensed Unix and went bankrupt, was aquired by patent trolls. They are now claiming that IBM stole tens of thousands of lines of code from Unix to use in the freely-distributed Linux, though they’ve apparently given no details to support such claims. This case may be referred to as "Son of Son of SCO Suit", since it’s a zombie-like resurrection or necromancing of cold cases that have long been lost by the claimants. But, every dog needs its day in court, so this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this nonsense.

So: one good decision, one bad necromancing. Time marches on.