Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Oracle-Google trial to start on April 16, 2012

Judge William Alsup just entered an order setting April 16, 2012 as the definitive trial date for Oracle v. Google at the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

Originally, trial was envisioned (but not set in the same formal way) for October 31, 2011. It was postponed, and temporarily there was doubt whether the case would go to trial before the end of 2012. But now it's clear that will start on April 16, 2012 and "run about eight weeks", as per today's order.

On Friday, the parties had to respond to questions concerning the trial-readiness and potential streamlining of the case. Oracle offered to withdraw up to three patents, provided that those stand rejected (even if on an appealable basis) at the time of a spring trial. This would narrow the case down to only two patents, and Oracle's mostly API-related copyright infringement claims. Google, by contrast, argued that the case shouldn't go to trial before the fall. This scheduling order is totally in line with Oracle's proposal -- a proposal that I admit I thought would have to be amended (such as by dropping one more patent).

Not only did the judge adopt Oracle's and reject Google's proposed course of action but he also sided with Oracle in the final sentence of today's order on a streamlining issue:

"Google is hereby encouraged to withdraw its invalidity defenses that have failed in the reexamination process as a way to further streamline the trial on the two patents remaining in suit."

This relates to the '520 patent, the only Oracle patent-in-suit the asserted claims of which survived reexamination. Oracle proposed last week that Google should drop those invalidity contentions that failed to convince the patent office, especially since patent claims that were reaffirmed at the end of reexamination enjoy an enhanced presumption of validity.

On Friday I said about this: "I think Oracle has a point." The judge apparently thinks so, too, though he doesn't force Google to drop those contentions. But Google would be well-advised to heed his words.

So what's a likely outcome on this basis?

Oracle's case could be strengthened significantly if its requests for reconsideration (of the final but appealable rejection of many patent claims by the USPTO) yielded results in the coming weeks. In that case, Oracle might have some reasonably strong patent claims to assert.

If Oracle's patent case is limited to the '520 patent (where it's going to be difficult to convince the jury of actual infringement) and the RE'104 "Gosling patent", then I think we're talking about a copyright case much more so than a patent case.

The copyright part raises important questions concerning the protection of intellectual property in material related to application programming interfaces. The outcome could have important effects way beyond this particular litigation.

As far as damages are concerned, one of the other orders Judge Alsup entered today relates to Oracle's third damages report. The judge threw out some (but not all) of Oracle's damages theories. Since a court-appointed independent damages expert will present his views to the jury, it's quite possible that whatever positions the parties' own experts take will bear only limited weight. The court-appointed expert will probably be perceived as a highly credible source, but a very persuasive expert hired by one of the parties can still influence the jury's thinking.

At any rate, damages are not what this case is primarily going to be about. At this stage I don't think Oracle will win multi-billion dollar damages. But Oracle already made it clear months ago, and pointed out again and again over time, that its priority is to win an injunction against Android in order to "bring Android back into the Java fold". A patent-based injunction of narrow scope could be worked around. However, if Oracle wins an injunction based on copyrighted API-related material, it's possible that Google will indeed have to accede to Oracle's demand to adhere to the official Java standard (or that Google will have to pay a much higher price in order for Oracle to condone continued fragmentation of Java).

Since Oracle's case has been narrowed considerably during the course of this litigation, a pre-trial settlement is now much more likely than it would have been last fall.

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