Google Alleged Code Copying Is a Huge Management Problem

Last Updated Oct 29, 2010 12:23 PM EDT

The legal feud between Oracle (ORCL) and Google (GOOG) over alleged copyright and patent infringement has just taken an interesting turn. Oracle amended its complaint to include alleged examples of directly copied code. The comparison looks exact, which is bad news for Google's defense. Things could get far worse, as well, should this example be just the first of many.

However, for a moment, put aside whether Google has to pay a large sum of cash to Oracle. There is a far bigger issue of whether Google has the management systems in place to properly direct what the company does and how it manages risk. Given what has come out even so far in this case and in the turmoil over Google's sampling private data from Wi-Fi hot spots around the world, the answer would seem to be no. That raises the question of whether CEO Eric Schmidt and his top executive team are performing some of the most basic management functions that any corporation needs.

As you can see in these side-by-side comparisons, the examples of code from Oracle and from Google look identical

Here's one example that our sister site ZDNet pulled out of the documents (click on the image for a larger view):

Even if these are the only examples Oracle can find of identical code -- not likely, I think, but posit it for now -- the damage done to Google's defense is enormous. One of the points Google made in answering the complaint was that the company developed a so-called clean room version of Java. In other words, Google says that it put developers into a vacuum. Without reference to how Sun Microsystems, acquired by Oracle, coded Java software, Google's development team was supposed to work backwards from what the software was supposed to do and create its own version.

Might some code realistically look similar? Absolutely, as engineers could easily reach for similar approaches to solving problems. But completely identical, down to variable names? Ha!

Now Google has some serious explaining to do. In the early days of the Wi-Fi data grabbing tumult, the explanation was that the whole multi-year-long episode was one big error, as a company statement suggested:

So how did this happen? Quite simply, it was a mistake. In 2006 an engineer working on an experimental WiFi project wrote a piece of code that sampled all categories of publicly broadcast WiFi data. A year later, when our mobile team started a project to collect basic WiFi network data like SSID information and MAC addresses using Google's Street View cars, they included that code in their software -- although the project leaders did not want, and had no intention of using, payload data.
At the time, I walked through a six-step analysis of why this was so much unprocessed, bovine-delivered plant fertilizer:
  1. As developers wrote code, either they documented their work or not.
  2. Either the project had supervision or not.
  3. If the project had supervision, either people did their jobs and knew what was going in or not.
  4. If the people knew what was happening, then they either competently ensured that code was documented or not.
  5. If supervisors did their jobs, either communication allowed management to know of the data, or the communications necessary to properly running a company was absent and the whole effort was for naught.
  6. If management knew, then it lied and then did an about face in public.
Change the word "documented" to "copied" and you could reuse the same thread of logic.

Clean room development does not result in sections of identical code any more than putting six monkeys on typewriters in a room for a few months will give you pages of Shakespeare. So either management knew what was going on, in which case it acted in a completely irresponsible manner, or the company didn't have the checks and balances in place to be sure that everything was done as it should be to avoid a problem with the pugilistic Oracle, in which case management acted in a completely irresponsible manner.

The conclusion is the same, and that raises yet another question: Can Google ever achieve its potential when those who run it seem unable to exert meaningful control when it counts most?


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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.