Jury says Google breached Oracle copyright

morgueFile user southernfried
morgueFile user southernfried

(MoneyWatch) In the long-running copyright and patent infringement fight between database and software company Oracle (ORCL) and search king Google (GOOG), a jury gave Oracle a partial victory today in the first phase of the trial. Google has asked for a mistrial on a question that could greatly limit damages.

The fight has been over Google's incorporation of Oracle's Java programming language into the Internet company's Android operating system. Judge William Alsup had structured the trial to separately consider Oracle's copyright and patent allegations, as the process and remedies under the law are different. The jury agreed unanimously that Oracle proved Google had "infringed the overall structure, sequence and organization" of Java. In particular, the infringement was of 37 APIs, or application programming interfaces. These are the structures that one developer uses to other developers access to a software package.

Full coverage of Oracle v. Google on CNET.com

Where the jury failed to agree was whether Google's use constituted fair use, which is a provision under copyright law that gives one party to make limited use of another party's copyrighted material. Jurors said Friday that they had reached a stalemate, but agreed to work through the weekend to see if they could arrive at a decision.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the potential financial damages for Google could be less than $100,000, a tiny fraction of the $1 billion combined copyright and patent infringement penalty that Oracle sought. That is because Alsup has said that Oracle would be entitled only to statutory damages and not to part of Google's profits.

But that depends on how statutory damages are calculated. Under U.S. copyright law, those can run from "not less than $750 or more than $30,000 as the court considers just." The amount can jump to as much as $150,000 if infringement was willful. The complication is that statutory damages are typically calculated per infringement. If the court decided to base it on each of the many tens of millions of copies of Android available on mobile devices, that could be a very pricey bill, as some of the recording industry's music sharing suits against consumers have shown.

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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.