Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Oracle & Google IP Trial: the Judge is the Gem

Last week the "WorldSeries of intellectual property trials" came to a close. Oracle, who purchased Sun Microsystems, was suing Google over its use over Java. Oracle claimed the Google had infringed on 37 of its copyright "APIs" or application programming interfaces. 

What is an API, you may ask? I also had the same question and found the following resources that may be of help:
  • Simplest definition that I found was on the Guardian's reporting of the trial who defined APIs as "computer language that connects programs and operating systems – known as application programming interfaces". But I wasn't satisfied with that, so I dug some more.
  • CNET had a number of good resources on the topic. This FAQ gives a good broad overview of Java and explains the relevance of APIs to the programming language. However, the article that probably sheds the most light on the topic is this one. The article walks through a key part of the trial where Joshua Bloch (former Sun Java-expert-engineer now working for Google) defines an API "as "names or words and a set of rules." When the program speaks to a library, it has speak in a very precise language, he continued. Typically the words are verbs and phrases, such as "remove the header."". What is also helpful is the accompanying slideshow that illustrates the lines of codes that Oracle claimed that Google infringed upon.

Google sought to pay Oracle 2.8 million, but Oracle wanted a cool billion for what it deemed to be a violation of the copyrights. The end result was that Oracle lost; the judge delivered a narrow ruling that Google use of the APIs was not a violation of copyright because APIs cannot be copyrighted. As reported on GigaOm, "The crux of Alsup’s ruling today is that 37 of the Java application programming interfaces aren’t eligible for copyright in the first place. Copyright typically protects authors’ work — in the form of books, music, computer code, etc — but doesn’t extend to functions or ideas."

IP: A drain on innovation
The case is a good piece of evidence for those that are critical over the patenting of software.Critics, such as John C. Dovorak, point out that the system is dysfunctional altogether. From a resource allocation point of view, this trial illustrates that a significant amount of resources are dedicated to litigation. According to Patrick Doody, an-ex partner at Pillsbury law firm, the trial is estimated to cost $50 million. Leo Laporte, owner of the This-week-in-Tech (TWIT network), routinely points out in the podcasts that he produces - that software giants waste money on patent suits instead of spending those same funds on innovation. To quantify his argument: if the average salary paid to an IT professional is $80,000,Google and Oracle could have invested in about 625 full-time equivalents (FTEs)  worth of work instead of litigating this trial. Of course such logic is lost on Capitalist enterprise, whose focus is profits over innovation. 

Technology & Society: A Watershed Moment
Another nugget that came out of this trial was the reason that judge William Alsup's (the judge presiding over the trial) rejected Oracle's argument. The judge challenged Oracle's assumption that a "range check" was difficult to build - because he knew how to code in Java! 

According to Wired,  "he had learned to code in Java for the trial — implying that he knew other languages as well — and he said that he had written some of the infringing code at least a hundred times since Oracle filed its suit in August 2010. “I can do it. You can do it. It’s so simple,” he said, adding that it takes less than five minutes. Then looked directly at Boies. “You’re one of the best lawyers in America — how can you make that argument?” he demanded.

Posts in the tech community, notably on I-Programmer and O'Reilly, point out that this is  a watershed moment in society: code and technology is "a part of the world we live in".

Can one make the analogy that if judges should be this technology proficient, so should audit practitioners?  

Given the nature of the accounting profession, it would be difficult to make it mandatory for audit practitioners to program. However, on the other hand, the profession should use this opportunity to re-examine what aspects of technology should be a part of the audit practitioners skill set - given that is clear that society's attitude towards technology has clearly changed. 

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