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Google, Oracle Locked In High-Stakes Patent Battle


This week, in a federal courtroom in San Francisco, two billionaire CEOs took the stand. Both run big technology companies and both are named Larry. Oracle's Larry Ellison and Google's Larry Page are locked in a high-stakes battle over patents and copyrights.

To tell us more about this, NPR's Steve Henn is on the line. Good morning, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Good morning.

NEARY: So tell us, what are these two companies fighting about?

HENN: Well, this fight began when Oracle bought Sun Microsystems in 2010. Sun makes a programming language called Java that's used by millions of smartphones and computers and websites, and it allows them to talk to each other.

Now Java comes in different flavors. There's a free version that anyone can build into their products. And then there are more sophisticated versions that companies typically pay licenses in order to use. Basically, Oracle says Google used their top-shelf version of Java without paying for a license. So Oracle has accused Google, in federal court, of infringing on Java's copyrights and violating some of its software patents.

NEARY: What's at stake here for Google?

HENN: Well, in nice round numbers, $1 billion. When Oracle first filed this case a couple years ago, it was asking for six times that much. But recent court decisions have limited the potential damage. Still, you know, a $1 billion is a lot of money, even for Google. And if Google loses it could have a big ripple effect on smartphone business.

Right now, Google gives away the Android operating system for free to companies like HTC and Samsung that makes these phones. And Google does this because by giving away Android to phone makers it guarantees that these phones are set up - at least initially - to use Google Search and other Google products. Then the company is able to make money off Android customers by selling advertising that will reach them on their phones. So if Google loses this suit, it's going to increase what it costs the company to make Android software. If those costs o up too much Google may decide that it's time to start charging phone makers for Android, and that would force prices up for everybody.

NEARY: Well, I would guess this is being pretty closely watched in Silicon Valley. I mean, it's not often that you get two billionaires named Larry taking the stand at the same time. How is the trial going?

HENN: Well, you know, these guys share a name, but they really couldn't be more different. And by all accounts, that's really come across as they were on the stand this week. Larry Ellison, Oracle's CEO, is kind of your, you know, classic billionaire CEO. You know, he races yachts, he collects jets. And Google's Larry Page really tends to come off more like a college math professor. He can seem shy and sometimes even a bit awkward and you know, famously, he drives a Prius. So when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison took the stand he was self-confident he answered most of the questions directly, you know, he, there was some rough spots but he rarely got rattled. In contract, Google's Larry Page really struggled. He got a bit beat up on the stand by Oracle's attorney David Boise. Folks in the courtroom said he didn't make much eye contact. He was reprimanded by the judge for failing to answer questions, and when he did answer he delivered some whoppers - at one point saying he was not sure if Android was actually critical to Google's business.

NEARY: And we should remind people that Oracle's attorney, David Boise, gave Microsoft's Bill Gates a hard time about 10 years ago.

HENN: That's right. He really embarrassed Gates on the stand during Microsoft's anti-trust trial in the '90s. And he's sort of built his reputation for beating up on technology billionaires, so the fact that Page had a hard time probably isn't a huge surprise. But it didn't help Page or Google that David Boise had an internal email from 2010 in which a Google executive suggested that the company really needed to negotiate a license for this software in question, Java.

One of the ironies in this case, is that Google turned over that email by mistake. It was originally disclosed to Oracle's lawyers because of a bad search.

NEARY: NPR's Steve Henn, thanks so much.

HENN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.