Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Saturday 14 August 2010

Google vs Oracle

I don't know much about the Google/Oracle dispute so I'll limit my remarks, but here they are:

I don't understand why Oracle is doing this. They may wish Google was using Java ME, but I would have thought having more developers using Java was good for Java overall. Probably there are important background discussions we are not privy to.

Dalvik is open source, but it's very much a Google project that Google happens to release under an open source license, rather than a community project. So I think of this as two big companies scrapping rather than Oracle launching an attack on the open source community.

However, this extends a disturbing trend of large mainstream companies using software patents to attack competitors, especially prominent in the mobile space. Observers of software patents, including myself --- and even Bill Gates in his infamous 1991 memo --- have always seen that volumes of easily obtained software patents on straightforward ideas could be a powerful weapon to crush competition; software development is so inventive that most programmers daily write code that someone patented somewhere. Fortunately, for a long time, other than "patent trolls", serious industry players declined to use that power. But now that grace has departed and I fear patent armageddon is upon us. In the end the open source community is likely to be particularly hard-hit, since it's easy to detect infringement, and open source communities have limited funds for defense. People have argued that open source communities are less of a target because they have less money to extract, but the most dangerous suits are about shutting down competition, not about extracting licensing fees --- like this Google/Oracle suit, apparently.

Overall I'm extremely gloomy about the situation. A world where each programmer has to be shepherded by a dozen lawyers through patent minefields is not one I will enjoy working in, and it will be disastrous for the progress of software. I call on employees of Oracle, Apple and other litigating companies to protest to their management in the strongest possible terms, including resignation. Google and Mozilla are hiring :-).

It's little consolation that some enlightened countries --- like New Zealand, apparently --- will hopefully remain free of software patents. A software company --- or an open source project --- that can't do business or get distribution in the USA or many other countries (including most of Europe, given the 'method patent' regime) is somewhat crippled.


This quote from Gosling suggests that Java licensing-related lawsuits may have been one of Oracle's motivations for buying Sun in the first place:
"Oracle finally filed a patent lawsuit against Google. Not a big surprise. During the integration meetings between Sun and Oracle where we were being grilled about the patent situation between Sun and Google, we could see the Oracle lawyer's eyes sparkle. Filing patent suits was never in Sun's genetic code. Alas.... "
From http://nighthacks.com/roller/jag/entry/the_shit_finally_hits_the
Aristotle Pagaltzis
Actually, practice indicates that open source is unlikely to suffer much. Take a lot at this report:
A conference on software patents and free software
Robert Accettura
I've thought before that Oracle bought Sun for the IP and litigated income it could bring in. This is at least partial confirmation that hunch may have been right.
Personally I think their real fear is that Google's Java may eventually fork from Sun's and developers may see mobile as the future and just go in that direction. At that point Oracle's IP value drops. Oracle sees the need for control in this space.
Oracle's Linux kernel contributions are about making a stable platform for their product to run on and keep their customers happy. It's a winning and compatible strategy with open source winning as well.
Their strategy with Java I don't think will be even remotely similar. Java is a revenue generating technology, not a supporting technology like Linux.
On the plus side, I don't think this will have much impact the rest of the industry. This is a pretty unique situation. It does show what harm software patents can do though. If I were a company deciding on what technologies to develop long term systems on, I'd second guess Java now given the destructive path it's on. I'd consider closed source .NET before Java simply because you know what you're getting and not getting. (I'd end up opting for something more open though).
1. Patents are evil. It's a barrier to hold progress and makes money from nothing.
2. Big companies use patent pools to fend off newcomers. It might be that Oracle now (after it bought Sun) have bigger pool and want to take a piece of trillion-dollar android market.
3. Java and VM in general is bad thing for performance and resource consumption. Apple is smart with its decision to allow only native apps in iOS.
Aryeh Gregor
The best solution I see is for a bunch of like-minded organizations to get together and form a copyleft-style pool corporation that they all give over all their patents to. Roughly: anyone can join the pool, and any pool member can use any other pool member's patents to sue anyone who holds software patents (thus excluding pool members, who have given their patents to the pool; and obviously excluding the pool organization itself).
So basically, they all tell their employees to file for zillions of software patents, then hand them over to patent trolls to sue anyone who doesn't agree to give up their patents to the pool. Retaliatory suits are impossible because the practicing entities that filed for the patents no longer control them, so they can't be deterred. Settlement is fruitless, because there will be more patents and patent trolls coming along tomorrow even if you do settle this time.
If the pool collects enough patents, companies will have to either join the pool and give up on software patents, or suffer an endless barrage of patent lawsuits. Some of the big players will fold eventually. Which will then contribute all their patents to the cause, and put even more pressure on the holdouts.
It seems like a plausible scheme to me, given that software patents are massively underenforced. If everyone actually enforced all their software patents against everyone, everything would collapse. So go ahead and play a game of chicken, except make it known that you've removed your car's steering wheel and brakes. The other guy has no choice but to back down, if he doesn't want to crash and burn.
I originally posted this idea on lwn.net: http://lwn.net/Articles/385675/ It looks like that discussion caught the attention of Florian Mueller of NoSoftwarePatents, although he incorrectly attributed the idea to a subsequent commenter, dmarti: http://fosspatents.blogspot.com/2010/05/dpl-and-fair-troll-business-model-make.html . Google seems like the ideal company to try spearheading the effort. Even without big-name support, though, some smaller organizations like Mozilla and Red Hat could get together and build up a big patent pool by targeting small companies first, then progressively larger ones. Given some money for filing fees, Mozilla by itself could get a lot of patents by just asking all its developers to start filling out patent forms for every stupid feature they write.
Does any of this sound plausible? Copyleft has worked pretty well for software, but it could work for patents much faster, since independent invention is not a defense against patent infringement.