Ellison Fumbles Testimony in High-Stakes Java Case

If there were any doubts as to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s attitude toward Google, those were dispelled in his testimony on Tuesday morning in a San Francisco U.S. District Court courtroom.

Oracle has filed suit against Google, alleging that that its Android mobile operating system infringed on patents that Oracle acquired in 2009, when it bought Sun Microsystems. Oracle is seeking nearly US$1 billion in damages in the high-stakes case, which could, if Oracle should win, upend the smartphone market.

Cheap Knockoffs

Among Ellison’s more colorful quotes: “If people could copy our software and create cheap knockoffs of our products, we wouldn’t get paid for our engineering and wouldn’t be able to invest what we invest.”

However, Ellison, never known for tempering his remarks, also may have given opposing counsel ammunition for their case. Google maintains that Oracle’s suit is an attempt to shake it down for a share of Android’s profits.

On the stand, under questioning from Google’s attorneys, Ellison admitted that Oracle had explored the possibility of entering the smartphone space via an acquisition of Research In Motion or Palm. It abandoned these plans without making a bid for either firm.

Ignorance About Android

Google CEO Larry Page also had some less-than-shining moments during his testimony, which followed Ellison’s. He professed ignorance about the details of Android’s development, adding that he didn’t believe his company had done anything wrong.

As part of its suit, Oracle has produced emails reportedly exchanged among top Google staff, including Page. In those messages, Google Senior Vice President of Mobile Andy Rubin discussed whether Google should license Java or just move ahead without a license.

Google said it is confident about its defense, according to a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by spokesperson Jim Prosser.

“The creators of Java made it free and open, and cheered the launch of Android. Oracle’s claims not only go beyond copyright and patent law, but also threaten the entire Java community, software developers, and the goal of making systems work together smoothly,” the company said.

Oracle declined to comment for this story.

A Personal Affront

In this instance, Ellison can be forgiven his outspokenness — the suit is likely a deeply personal one for him, Rob Enderle, principal of the Enderle Group, told the E-Commerce Times.

“When Steve Jobs pledged to take out Google, Larry was on board with that. Both men have a hard time with companies they think have stolen from them,” he said.

With Jobs’ passing, Ellison likely sees this case in part as continuing his work, Enderle speculated.

However, that makes it all the more surprising that Ellison’s testimony had some rough patches, Enderle continued. It wasn’t just the gift he handed to opposing counsel with his admission of an interest in the smartphone market.

“He also stumbled about certain aspects of Java,” noted Enderle. “For example, he was asked about the contrast between how he spoke about Java during the approval stage for the Sun Microsystems acquisition and how he spoke about it after the company was acquired. That could have been easily explained — more than likely, Larry wasn’t aware of how Google was using Java until he took control of the company.”

Almost always, such acquisitions have a certain arm’s length element to them until the deal is done, Enderle said, and the top executives could well be unaware of certain aspects of the operations of the firm they are trying to acquire.

Fatal Missteps?

Still, such missteps on the part of a CEO can be fatal to a case.

“When a company decides to lead with a star like Larry Ellison, the whole case can turn on the jury’s perception of that witness, and how likeable and credible they find him,” Michael K. Ng, a partner atKerr & Wagstaffe, told the E-Commerce Times.

“A celebrity can certainly help tell the story because the jurors are paying close attention, but if the witness makes a misstep, the jury will be on top of that, too.”

That may be why the Oracle decided to open its case with closely edited videotaped testimony from Page, he said. The overall effect was that Page gave evasive answers to some rather simple and direct questions.

Page is scheduled to continue his testimony on Wednesday.

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