Google’s Android operating system will face its first big court challenge on Monday as a trial gets under way in California to consider a claim from software group Oracle that could top $1bn.
If successful, Oracle would be in a position to seek an injunction blocking US sales of Android handsets, which have overtaken Apple’s iPhone to become the biggest-selling smartphone platform worldwide.
With such an outcome, Oracle would likely be required to offer Google a licence to its technology at rates that analysts say should not cripple Android’s competitiveness, however.
The trial marks the first time that a jury has been asked to weigh up the inner workings of Google’s software. Hardware makers such as Motorola Mobility and HTC also face a barrage of lawsuits over the use of Android software in their smartphones, tablets and ereaders.
Oracle first instigated legal proceedings against Google in August 2010, but its initial case, under which it sought damages of more than $6bn, has been scaled back significantly. Five of the patents underpinning its claim were thrown out in pre-trial hearings and lawyers close to the case estimate that any damages it stands to collect from infringement of the remaining two are likely to be less than $10m.
The more unusual copyright claim due to go to trial on Monday leaves the database software company free to asset damages of $1bn or more, however.
Barring an 11th hour settlement, jury selection is set to begin at the federal courthouse in San Francisco for a trial expected to last six weeks.
Oracle has alleged Google infringed its copyright in the Java programming language, which Oracle acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems two years ago.
Java was invented by Sun to act as a standard software interface across all operating systems, making it possible for developers to write applications that can be run on any system.
Google lawyers have maintained that copyright doesn’t apply, since Oracle’s suit centres on features of the Android software that do not themselves directly replicate the Java software, but were written using the technology.
Evidence expected to be presented by Oracle at trial includes an email by a Google engineer which concluded that the search company should seek a licence from Oracle to use Java. However, Google lawyers have said that this resulted from an internal review that only took place when it became clear that Oracle might sue. Java’s previous owner, Sun, had welcomed its use of the technology, the search company claims.
The case has stirred up echoes of a prominent case involving Java dating back to the 1990s, when Sun sued Microsoft for $2bn alleging breach of contract and trademark infringement over the software.
However, Oracle’s claim represents a novel departure, since it would be the first time that software written with a particular computer language had been held to be copyrightable.
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