Friday, September 18, 2015

Judge denies motion to preclude Oracle from arguing Google's Java copyright infringement was willful

Judge William H. Alsup of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California has just denied a Google motion to preclude Oracle from arguing at next year's retrial that the search giant's infringement of Java copyrights (through incorporation of the declarations of 37 Java API packages into Android) was willful. In its opposition to Google's motion, Oracle had pointed to a particularly "expressive" piece of evidence: a Google-internal email according to which one of its key Android developers found Android's original Java libraries "half-ass at best" and identified a need for "another half of an ass."

The federal judge sees two legal reasons for which Google's motion couldn't succeed. Willfulness would have a bearing on the deduction of certain costs from profits that would have to be disgorged. Should Oracle, however, elect to seek statutory damages instead of, for example, a disgorgement of profits, then up to $150,000 per work infringed, as opposed to the standard maximum of $30,000, would be available. No matter how unlikely Google (and presumably many observers) consider a later Oracle choice to seek statutory damages, Judge Alsup interprets the law as preventing his court "from compelling Oracle to elect its measure of damages early on."

But the outcome isn't all bad for Google. The good among the bad from Google's perspective is that Judge Alsup has simultaneously decided that the trial would be bifurcated. The jury would firstly rule on Google's "fair use" defense without being briefed on Oracle's damages theories; then, if Oracle prevails (which I'm sure it will), damages and willfulness evidence will be presented in the second phase of the trial.

After a "fair use" finding, the next factual issue for the jury to decide will be willfulness. Thereafter, depending on the outcome, cetain damages theories may or may not be presented.

This approach means Google avoids its worst-case scenario, which would have been for the jury to hear about evidence such as the second "half of an ass" before making a decision on the "fair use" defense. I don't know how Google and its lawyers feel about this, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were actually rather pleased. They might have known all along that it was (at best) a long shot to try to avoid any willfulness discussion, so this here may be the best outcome they could have realistically expected.

For now, it appears that Google will be able to present some evidence and argument relating to its equitable defenses. Oracle might use some of the evidence that also has a bearing on willfulness to counter Google's claims that it relied on certain public statements by Sun. If not, Oracle would be substantially disadvantaged as a result of Judge Alsup's pretrial decisions.

So I expect to see some fights further in the process over which pieces of evidence that relate to willfulness are admissible as evidence in the first trial phase anyway (because of some other kind of probative value).

It's worth noting that Judge Alsup was much less concerned back in 2012 about a jury hearing more evidence than necessary. At the time he decided to put Google's defenses, especially "fair use," before the jury even though he ultimately held the infringed declaring API code non-copyrightable (which, as everyone knows, the Federal Circuit reversed and the Supreme Court declined to even take a look at). If he had made his finding before the jury trial, and if it had been upheld (in a parallel universe), the first jury would never even have had to think about "fair use." But this remand is different in some respects, including this one.

A key issue to decide will be whether the court-appointed expert from the first trial, Dr. Kearl, can still testify even though he has in the meantime done work for Samsung, a Google Android partner. I would be extremely surprised if a judge who showed concern in 2012 about the court, including appeals courts, being potentially influenced by bloggers now had no problem with a court-appointed expert--who undoubtedly and massively influences the court and the jury--being aligned with one "camp." I can't imagine that we'll see Dr. Kearl appear at next year's trial, but a formal decision has yet to be made.

Here's the order:

15-09-18 Order Denying Google Motion to Preclude by Florian Mueller

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