Why The Oracle Java Patents Were Literally A Joke Played By Sun Engineers

from the our-patent-system-at-work dept

There’s a famous story of how IBM sued Sun for patent infringement in the early days. The patent claims from IBM were ridiculous, and Sun’s engineers pointed that out to IBM’s lawyers. In response, the men in blue made the famous statement:

“OK, maybe you don’t infringe these seven patents. But we have 10,000 U.S. patents. Do you really want us to go back to Armonk [IBM headquarters in New York] and find seven patents you do infringe? Or do you want to make this easy and just pay us $20 million?”

I had been thinking of that story after seeing the news that Oracle was suing Google over patents it received in buying Sun, and it seems that the joke of an IBM lawsuit may be indirectly responsible for this equally laughable lawsuit. Slashdot points us to a blog post by early Sun engineer James Gosling, where he admits that the experience with the IBM lawsuit resulted in a game among Sun engineers to come up with the most ridiculous thing that could be patented:

In Sun’s early history, we didn’t think much of patents. While there’s a kernel of good sense in the reasoning for patents, the system itself has gotten goofy. Sun didn’t file many patents initially. But then we got sued by IBM for violating the “RISC patent” – a patent that essentially said “if you make something simpler, it’ll go faster”. Seemed like a blindingly obvious notion that shouldn’t have been patentable, but we got sued, and lost. The penalty was huge. Nearly put us out of business. We survived, but to help protect us from future suits we went on a patenting binge. Even though we had a basic distaste for patents, the game is what it is, and patents are essential in modern corporations, if only as a defensive measure. There was even an unofficial competition to see who could get the goofiest patent through the system. My entry wasn’t nearly the goofiest.

While that patent that Gosling names isn’t included in this particular lawsuit, but others have noticed that one of the patents (RE38104) is a Gosling patent.

Of course, it’s easy to point out that the folks named on the patents are claiming themselves that the patents were part of a joke to see how bad the patent office is. But, you can take it to another level altogether, and have folks who actually know quite a bit about the technology go through the patents one by one and explain why each of them is a total joke.

This is yet another in an exceptionally long line of examples of what a complete mess our patent system has become. I’m curious if the patent system supporters out there can come up with some sort of way to defend the patent system in this particular situation.

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Companies: google, ibm, oracle, sun

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Comments on “Why The Oracle Java Patents Were Literally A Joke Played By Sun Engineers”

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Richard Corsale (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Odd, so… there are literally thousands of proposals to reduce damages, shorten the length of patents, impose liability on companies that use patents to commit anti-trust violations, Mandate that patents be used and consistently defended like trademarks. How is that critics not offering solutions? come on… you mean, critics don’t have an ultra powerful lobby.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Re:

We have a race.

We discover a winner (never mind if there was cheating, we’ll ignore that detail).

Now, we have to suffer for 20 years of only allowing that **one** person to run in that race (and hence win by default)?

And what makes patents worse is the ridiculous low bar they create: “non-obvious” to a PHOSITA! Just think about how low of a bar that is. Think about the many more advanced works in progress that will be jeopardized or the many inventors that will lose leverage and future access because they found many things simply too easy to merit a patent or decided to work on the actual hard stuff rather than waste their time trying to keep peers and competitors from doing the basics. And for 20 years we must suffer!

We need to learn from open source software development: peer review, access, and rights to innovate on top of what currently exists and improve these products while re-using the best ideas as much as possible (in fact, there is a natural urge to first try to re-invent the wheel, but sometimes round is simply too good to pass up or attempt to design around).

Steve R. (profile) says:


Well, for one, this tarnishes my image of Larry Ellison.
Another implication is that Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems which has Open Office and MySQL. Both of these programs are important to the LINUX community. If Oracle is going to make a stink about patents, what does this imply in terms of Oracle’s commitment to these products?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Implications?

I worked at Oracle as an Architect for several years. I got there via an acquisition. I can tell you – Oracle is EVIL. It is a horrible place to work. More to the point, I know for a fact that patents are jokes – I am familiar with several patents that Oracle filed on a design that was based on prior art. I know for a fact that this was disclosed during the process and still the patents were pursued and filed.

Also, anyone who doesnt think Oracle will take a big ole dump on the open source community is an idiot.

SuperSparky (user link) says:

Patents and Purpose

The way to fix patents is to restore the system back to what it was originally when we actually had a free market system. Make patents (and copyrights) short term and not these long and ridiculous time periods.

Patents were originally intended to benefit the innovator and give him a head start on making a profit on its exclusivity. However, to make sure future innovation was not prevented by an old or now commonplace use patent, they were intended to expire after a mere decade or so. This kept the innovator with an incentive to continue to innovate and not rest on the heals of one success and not to create a dinosaur suing machine that exists only on old ideas.

Patents today are no longer encouraging innovation, but actually prevent it. Their long period of protection discourages innovation and encourages monopolistic hoarding.

The original intent of patents can be summed up as thus: “Great! You invented a new dumaflatchi! You get to profit off of your invention for a decent period of time, but know this, it will end while you’re skill kicking. So you’d better keep thinking of new ideas to keep the gravy train flowing, because if you don’t someone else may have an idea of how to make yours better when the patent expires.” Short term patents benefit the innovator and society in general, because they encourage innovation by their period of reward and discourage monopolistic hoarding by their period of reward and protection. They allow society to move on.

Before anyone tries to convince you otherwise, long term patents are monopolistic in nature, not capitalistic. Capitalism encourages innovation and profit on both an individual and societal level, which keeps the market moving forward. Monopolism stifles the market by large road blocks of giant patent whores preventing innovation by the little guy. Those patents should have expired years ago and some should never have existed in the first place.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re: Mudak

Or perhaps the imaginary patent held by the mythical little guy isn’t worth a pile of cricket poop?

Holding a patent no more means that the market wants it than my calling myself a poet means that the market wants a collection of my drivel in a little book.

(There, got copyright and patent in a single post!)

Please go away.

rangda (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Mudak

Close but not quite. The profit is in stealing the profits from others.

With the patent system as it is it makes more sense for the patent holder to NOT bring the patent to market, but to instead wait for others to so, wait a few years, then sue their asses off.

The only incentive patents are providing here are applications to law school…

angry dude says:

Re: Re: Re: another mudak

it is pretty clear even to techdirt imbecile that without (a sufficiently lengthy) patent protection available to them companies will not invest in developing new cures and treatments for deseases

Masnik’k anti-patent bullshit is not gonna change this very simple fact of life

What’s your problem, punk ?

Natanael L (profile) says:

Re: Re: Mudak

Being a little guy isn’t a magic free pass to do anything. Just because you had an idea that you think is so great that you deserve a 20 year monopoly on it, that does not mean that you are the first one to have the idea.
Also, patents are supposed to appply to implementations. So just build something that works first, THEN file a patent for THAT. Then you can come back and tell us if it passed.
After that you can feel free to sue any big company that just blatantly takes your invention without paying.

But don’t try to fool us to think that it is impossible for several people to have the same idea at around the same time independently of each other.

BearGriz72 (profile) says:

Re: Patents and Purpose

Patents were originally intended to benefit the innovator and give him a head start on making a profit on its exclusivity. However, to make sure future innovation was not prevented by an old or now commonplace use patent, they were intended to expire after a mere decade or so. This kept the innovator with an incentive to continue to innovate and not rest on the heals of one success and not to create a dinosaur suing machine that exists only on old ideas.

This is best simple one paragraph explanation of the patent system and why it is broken I have run across in a while. Thank You! The Key Words there are “head start”, not “my precious“.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Patents and Purpose

As an addendum. Patents are no longer being given on an actual device based on real blueprints. Instead we have clouds with abstract titles linked to other clouds with other abstract titles.

To illustrate, if you design an oscillating sprinkler to water a lawn and get a patent for it, a competitor should be able to also build an oscillating sprinkle of a different design.

But today – the assertion is that once a patent is granted for an oscillating sprinkler all oscillating sprinklers (as a concept) are covered by that patent and any other manufacturer who produces and oscillating sprinkler is deemed to have infringed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Patents and Purpose

The original term of patents under the Patent Act of 1790 was 14 years from the date of grant.

The term of patents under the Patent Act of 1952 was 17 years from the date of grant.

Within the past several years the terms of patents changed from 17 years from date of grant to 20 years from the date of filing the original application. Given the delays associated with prosecution before the USPTO, the term is effectively pretty darn close to 17 years.

In all candor, it does seem to be a bit of an overstatement to suggest that patents are no longer short term as was intended when the law was first enacted in the US.

cow-anon says:

Re: Re: Patents and Purpose

I think you can still say that patents are no longer short term as was originally intended – not because the effective length of a patent has decreased, but because so much more happens in that span of time. [As compared to 1790]

Consider for a moment technology patents – 17 years? The average life span of a laptop is 3 years. Average life of a cell phone is 2 years. Average life of an Apple product is 30 minutes.

And let’s rewind 17 years from now and take a look at the state of technology then. Is anyone still buying technology from 1993? Or cars, even?

“Hey man, check out my sick new Toshiba Satellite Pro laptop – it’s got a built-in 56k modem so I can totally use it to get on AOL every time they send me one of those free trial discs in the mail.”

With the speed at which markets change today, 17 years could easily be longer than the entire life of a product. How many of you are reading this on a computer powered by a Core 2 Duo? Your next comp won’t have one – and those were introduced in 2006.

Anonymous Coward says:

NEW patent

the method and process of picking your nose.
WE’LL now need cameras attached ot your heads to make sure you rodnt infringe this patent because we know you do it and i want to be paid for this novel invention…it doesn’t requre a finger to do but you never know ….it might be a new device that does it for you….

Anonymous Coward says:

“…famous story…”

And because someone wrote about it it must be true. Maybe there is some truth to it. Maybe it is an exaggerated accout. Maybe poetic license permeates it. Who knows. But one thing is sure. It is unsubstantiated hearsay, and writing about it as if it is the God’s Honest Truth and unassailable is just plain off the mark.


One article on a blog. The guy at first glance seems to know a lot about JAVA, but even he admits he is not a lawyer and thus not able to truly analyze what was patented. Maybe they are junk. Maybe they are not. Only time will tell when evidence is collected and the patents measured against the evidence. Claims control, and not broad generalizations about what an invention purportedly comprises. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have met with engineers and scientists who made proclamations such as done in the article, only to have them do a 180 once they understood what a patent is, the importance of a claim, and then a comparison of that claim, not only against the references cited in the patent, but also against their broad scientific and engineering expertise. This is not to say that this necessarily approles here, but only that evidence produced during the litigation process is determinative.

“This is yet another in an exceptionally long line of examples of what a complete mess our patent system has become.”

You are, of course, free to express your opinion. If you are going to do so, however, at least admit the importance of evidence in support of your opinion when your familiarity with the “patent system” is hearsay based. Sadly, each time such over the top generalizations are made and demonstrated to be prematurely made or manifestly wrong, you have an unerring tendency to go into a defensive mode and attack those who may diagree.

“I’m curious if the patent system supporters out there can come up with some sort of way to defend the patent system in this particular situation.”

I am not a “patent system supporter” as you like to refer to those who might offer more nuanced comments. I will, however, suggest you consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the system actually worked in this instance. Otherwise, this statement is nothing more than yet another example of your deep seated antipathy towards anything that pertaining to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

WRONG! Patent system supporters is a term used here regularly in a pejorative sense in an attempt to discredit anyone who takes issue with many of the unsubstantiated comments regularly presented here. Point out a mistake and one is called a patent system supporter.

For example, I once had the temerity to note that the historical meaning of “progress” in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 was the “encouragment of learning”. I was blasted by the site and in no small measure informed I was uninformed about this constitutional provision. Now I note the tune here has changed and progress is being talked about precisely as I stated. Of course, this does not mean this site now agrees that learning should be the meaning ascribed to progress.

Next time you feel compelled to challenge a statement as I made, I suggest you stifle the urge to do so.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Oracle suing Google

As an IP (patent) attorney, I thought I would weigh in.

I have not read the patents involve here; I have too much to do (maybe later).

However, I don’t believe anyone can seriously defend “defensive” (large entity) patents. They are a drain on our economy, stifle innovation, and are a form of legalized extortion. From experience, I can tell you many aren’t even based on an actual invention!

IP, done the way the founding fathers intended, is a good thing, and helps everyone – the large entity patents (and trademarks, and copyright) involved here is clearly bad, and getting worse.

Jose_X (profile) says:

Re: Oracle suing Google

>> IP, done the way the founding fathers intended, is a good thing

Sure, ..like actually promoting the progress. If Congress has to undertake a census every decade, why can’t they be required to undertake the relevant studies as often to see if patent law is living up to the requirements of the Constitution. How can the SCOTUS accept Congress’ judgment here blindly when the whole point of a Constitution and SCOTUS is to verify that what Congress claims is in fact legitimate?

Great.. if it’s for a “limited time” (not theoretically “limited” but limited as judged by contemporaries, who obviously helped create context for the invention and want to exploit that evolving context themselves).

It would also be nice is independent creation (First Amendment rights) were not violated.

Also, in our much faster moving world (where profits get turned much quicker and much larger markets exist), the time frames involved should have been reduced from the original values used in the early 1800s (if we assume those figures were appropriate).

Anonimous says:

"Patent office" failed, not the idea of patents.

The “patent office” screwed up checking for patent worthiness.
Government organization screws up an implementation – that’s news… how?

The patent system did not fail the “patent office” did.
Solve the organizational problem that allowed “joke” patents.

Problem solved.

Ricardo Santos (profile) says:

Arrogance of patents.

It use to be that you could not patent an idea, but the implementation of an idea. That is why all cars have 4 wheels, a transmission and a steering wheel.

Then the patent office decided to give patents for ideas. At least in the software industry. If you did the same to the car example, company B must use 3 wheels, because company A patented the use of 4 wheels. Meanwhile company A cars have to be driven with a stick, because company C patented the steering wheel.

I am sure glad that patent office where a relative new invention. Otherwise we we all be living in caves, because someone patented the way to make fire. And pushing things over the dirt, because another one patented the wheel.

Patents based on ideas is the arrogant notion that just because I thought of something (or more likely my employee thought of something), no one is as smart to think of it on their own, so they must have copied me and must pay. Anyone with half a brain and an at least an ounce of integrity can see that they are just plain wrong.

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