Welcome to the Google-Oracle Patent Circus

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and get your front-row seats. For a limited time only, the Oracle-Google Larry & Larry Circus will be performing in the big tent, otherwise known as the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Already this week, Google CEO Larry Page chased fellow clowns Sergey and Eric through the courtroom with a seltzer bottle, while Oracle chief Larry Ellison rode around the jury on an elephant. (We think it was an elephant; it may have just been one of his attorneys.)

In August 2010, when Oracle announced its plans to sue Google over the alleged use of proprietary Java code in Android, a great big "ka-ching!" could be heard throughout the land. Clearly Oracle was trying to cash in on the success of Android, and Google would likely just pay up to have the nuisance go away.

(It seems having even $36 billion in your pocket just isn't enough -- especially when you're paying alimony to half the women in Woodside, Calif.)

Of course, Oracle had nothing to do with the development of Java, but it acquired those patents when it purchased Sun Microsystems in 2009 for $7.4 billion. Since then, Oracle and Google have been negotiating over what it would cost to make the whole thing go away. The fact that the patent circus is in town means they failed to agree on a number.

(I am reminded of the old joke in which a lecherous old man asks an attractive young woman if she would sleep with him for $1 million. When she agrees, he drops the price to $1. Outraged, she responds "What do you think I am?" "My dear," he replies, "we have already established that. Now we are haggling over price.")

It is now clear that a major reason Oracle swallowed Sun was so that it could sue Google over the Java patents. In fact, James Gosling, who was the original designer of Java while at Sun and also logged time at Oracle and Google, confirmed as much in a blog post from August 2010:

Oracle finally filed a patent lawsuit against Google. Not a big surprise. During the integration meetings between Sun and Oracle where we were being grilled about the patent situation between Sun and Google, we could see the Oracle lawyer's eyes sparkle. Filing patent suits was never in Sun's genetic code. Alas....

Why didn't Google just buy Sun? Probably because the Googlers didn't think they needed to. In November 2007, then Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz published a blog post congratulating Google on the debut of its new "Java/Linux phone platform, Android."

That post has since been flushed down the memory hole by Oracle, but not before Groklaw saved a copy. Schwartz also wrote: "Google and the Open Handset Alliance just strapped another set of rockets to [Sun's] momentum."

Turns out that was actually a bomb, not a rocket. It's so easy to confuse the two.

Oracle's suit may be a smart business decision, but it's bankrupt in every other way. Call me old-fashioned, but I always thought the patent system was created to encourage innovators by protecting them and their inventions, not for making fat cats fatter. Certainly, I am not cut out to be a patent attorney.

This is the patent insanity we find ourselves in today. Apple vs. Samsung, Facebook vs. Yahoo, Microsoft vs. Google -- the list of tech giants suing other tech giants over tech patents is growing, and that's not even including suits filed by patent trolls.

One small ray of hope comes from an unlikely source: Twitter. Yesterday it unveiled its Innovator's Patent Agreement, in which the microblog vows that it will only use the patents in its portfolio to defend itself from patent attacks from other companies. The IPA also allows Twitter to go after alleged patent violators if the creator of the technology in question allows it. Even better, the IPA travels with the patent -- so if Twitter is finally acquired by Google or Facebook (which seems inevitable to me), those rules would still apply.

That plan has already been endorsed by VCs like Fred Wilson, who say they will only fund startups if they agree to follow Twitter's lead.

Is there finally light at the end of the patent tunnel? Maybe, but only if the biggest companies in tech sit down and agree to end the madness. In the meantime, you might as well grab a bag of peanuts, sit back, and enjoy the show. But steer clear of the patent attorney chimps -- they bite.

Who will win, Oracle or Google? Cast your votes below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Welcome to the Google-Oracle patent circus," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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