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TheStreet Open House

Law Must Be With Google in Java Dispute

Stock quotes in this article: GOOG, ORCL

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's expert contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

SAN FRANCISCO (TheStreet) -- Most reporting on this week's Oracle (ORCL) vs. Google (GOOG) trial is of the celebrity type.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison looked uncomfortable on the stand after dancing for reporters outside the courthouse. Google CEO Larry Page was evasive with Oracle's lawyers.

But these are not Kardashians. This is not a celebrity case.

The question before the court is whether Oracle can assert copyright over the Application Program Interfaces (APIs) essential to using a computer language. Can you control what someone else does with a computer language?

The question is difficult to answer because of Java's history. Originally, the language was proprietary to its creator, Sun Microsystems. During these days there were also many implementations of the language made by others, some using open source licenses, and the platform was becoming fragmented, its "write once, run anywhere" promise lost like a great Tower of Babel.

In 2006, Sun decided to make the language open source, with a version under the General Public License (GPL), in order to unify development. Google made the decision to use Java for its Android phones after Sun made Java open source and sought a license of its APIs to this effect, but nothing was ever finalized.

Then, Oracle bought Sun. Oracle saw the success of Android, saw that Sun had not sold a commercial license for Java to Google, and sued asserting its copyright. The question before the courts is whether Oracle's copyright to the APIs - and hence control of the language - is valid.

Copyright is more powerful than a patent. This article has copyright. I assert it because I wrote it, and I assign it to the publisher. This right exists for the rest of my life, and extends 70 years after my death. The terms have been repeatedly extended by Congress whenever Mickey Mouse has approached the public domain.

Patents, by contrast, are inventions that must be disclosed, and their protection is limited to about 20 years. You can also invent around patents. Copyright violations, by contrast, are pretty self-evident.

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