Judge Gives Google a Break in Oracle Patent Suit -- on a Technicality [Update]

Last Updated May 6, 2011 6:29 PM EDT

Google (GOOG) has been on the short end of patent infringement suits for a while. But Judge William Alsup handed the company a major present in the Java infringement suit Oracle (ORCL) has been waging against Google. Alsup plans to drastically limit the number of patent claims that Oracle can assert, making Google's defense much easier and chances of an Oracle victory much slimmer.

Alsup came to the conclusion that there were too many patent claims (that is, the specific aspects of a patent that have legal protection) and prior art references (attempts to show that an invention isn't new) for a trial to realistically cover (emphasis is Alsup's):

Currently, there are 132 claims from seven patents asserted in this action, and there are hundreds of prior art references in play for invalidity defenses. This is too much. The following schedule will ensure that only a triable number of these items -- three claims and eight prior art references -- are placed before the jury in October, all others to be forsaken. Oracle will surrender all of its present infringement claims against Google based on the 129 asserted claims that will not be tried. Oracle may not renew those infringement claims in a subsequent action except as to new products.
Alsup has proposed a three step process from here out:
  1. Within 7 days of the finalized order, Oracle must narrow the number of claims to 40. Google has 7 days after that to reduce prior art citations to 120.
  2. By August 24, Oracle must narrow the field of claims to 20. Five days after, Google must have reduced the list of prior art to 60.
  3. After a summary judgment hearing (to see if either side can make a strong enough argument for immediately winning the proceedings), Oracle will cut the list of claims to 3, and Google will offer only 8 prior art references.
Any trial would start on October 31 -- Halloween. And the trick or treat? Alsup asks whether there would even been need of a trial after the two companies go back and forth over the validity of the claims.

That doesn't mean all issues go away. Patent issues have no bearing on claims of copyright infringement, and Oracle also brought suit on those. And it doesn't eradicate Alsup's siding with Oracle on some critical technical definitions. However, the result is clearly not to Oracle's liking. That still leaves dozens of suits targeting Google's hardware partners.

[Update: Would you believe that Oracle strongly opposes the Alsup's idea? No surprise. Oracle now wants to assert 3 claims per patent, for a total of 21. (Thanks to Florian Mueller for bringing that to my attention.) Chances are that Alsup wanted to get the two companies moving in a direction and chose an extreme position to get a reaction. We can probably expect a compromise position between the two.]


Image: Flickr user Drama Queen, CC 2.0.
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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.