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Will Kodak Lawsuit Affect Java?

Kodak's billion-dollar claim that Sun's use of Java violates its patents could cast a cloud over Java's future direction.

Charles Babcock

October 6, 2004

3 Min Read

The penalty phase of Eastman Kodak's Java patent lawsuit against Sun Microsystems starts Thursday morning. The outcome could be a financial blow for Sun and may even cast a shadow over the future of the Java programming language.

Kodak is expected to seek more than $1 billion in damages for what it claims is Sun's violations of three object-oriented software patents Kodak holds. Kodak acquired the patents when it bought Wang Laboratories Inc. for $260 million in 1997.

Late last week, following a three-week trial, a jury in the U.S. District Court for Western New York in Rochester decided that Java impinged on Kodak's three patents. In the penalty phase that starts today, Kodak is expected to argue that it is entitled to $1.06 billion in lump-sum royalties from Sun.

"We are disappointed with the federal jury's decision and are examining our options as we prepare for the damages phase," says a Sun spokeswoman. "We believe we will be successful in the damages phase."

The outcome of the trial is likely to raise anew concerns over the holding of patents on software techniques. Widely shared software, such as Linux and Java, may prove vulnerable to patent-infringement claims when proprietary companies say they have rights to certain software processes being duplicated in the shared software. The patent issue could even impact Microsoft's .Net technology, some observers say.

The trial outcome is going to raise concerns among Java users across the board, said Rick Ross in a posting to JavaLobby, his Java advocacy Web site. Ross is a Cary, N.C., programmer and a Java proponent who has appeared as a witness on behalf of Sun in its legal battles with Microsoft.

"This case will certainly be appealed, and there's a good probability that the jury verdict will be overturned on appeal," he argued in his posting. "I thought the trial would take longer, but this one moved like an open and shut case," Ross wrote.

But the Sun spokeswoman dismisses the idea that the Kodak suit would affect the millions of Java technology developers and users.

One of the patents Kodak acquired governs the means by which two cooperating processes in a data-interchange operation identify each other and identify the data formats they have in common. The identification processes are used in object-oriented programming, and Java and Microsoft's .Net languages such as C# make use of similar processes.

A Kodak spokesman wouldn't comment on whether Kodak would ask a judge to issue an injunction against Sun's use of Java if Sun decided to appeal. Sun would fight any request for an injunction and would seek a stay while an appeal is being heard, the Sun spokeswoman says.

The Kodak spokesman also wouldn't comment on whether Kodak, if its jury verdict stands, would seek royalties on a continuing basis from Sun beyond the lump-sum payment, or whether Kodak might seek royalties from major Java users. Many companies have adopted the language for enterprise applications since the language became available in 1995.

Kodak hired a consultant to calculate the value of the patents in Sun's use of Java and her 200-page report concluded it was $1.06 billion, the spokesman says.

Kodak, ironically, was an early supporter of Java. On Oct. 29, 1996, Sun issued a press release that cited Eastman Kodak as an early Java supporter. It quoted Robert LaPerle, VP and general manager of Kodak's Digital Products Business, as saying, "Java Enterprise Computing will enable us to greatly expand our ability to deliver fun and creating imaging services to consumers worldwide." Kodak acquired the Wang patents the following year.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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