Kodak wins Java patent suit

The case has outraged some opponents of software patents, who claim it is a textbook example of why software should not be patentable.

Eastman Kodak has won a controversial lawsuit in which it claimed Sun Microsystems had infringed several of its patents with its Java programming language.

A federal jury on Friday ruled in favor of Kodak, and the photography giant is now seeking damages of $1 billion from Sun.

The case has outraged some opponents of software patents, who claim it is a textbook example of why software should not be patentable.

Kodak's case centered on three patents that it bought from Wang Laboratories in 1997, several years after Java was created. These patents--numbers 5,206,951, 5,421,012, and 5,226,161--referred to the integration of data between object managers, and between data managers, and to the integration of different programs that were manipulating data of different types.

The lawsuit was filed in February 2002 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York.

Kodak argued in court that these patents covered the method where an application "asked for help" from another application--such as in Java's object-oriented programming language.

Kodak could not immediately be contacted for comment. According to a report in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on Friday, the company said it was "pleased that the court has validated Kodak's intellectual property rights."

Critics, though, have claimed that these patents should never have been granted, as they appear to cover one of the basic tenets of modern computing: the interaction between different programs.

Pamela Jones, who runs Groklaw--a Web site devoted to legal issues in the technology sector--has been flooded with comments since the decision was made, mostly from people opposing it. Jones herself believes the case could have disastrous consequences.

"Software patents will destroy the industry in the U.S.," wrote Jones on Sunday. "The rest of the world will out-innovate U.S. companies, because they won't be running with the patent ball-and-chain attached to their ankles, holding them back.

"Protect your software with copyright and trade secrets," she continued, "but using patents for software inevitably blocks progress. If you must have it, rope it off severely so it doesn't hurt anyone like this. At a minimum, patents that aren't actively being used by the patent holder in any way in any product shouldn't be available as a weapon against a company actively bringing an idea to fruition and use."

The European Union is currently moving towards bringing in a system that would allow some software patenting, although this has not yet been ratified.

Opponents of software patents have been lobbying for some patents to be revoked.

Last week, the U.S. Patent Office issued a preliminary rejection for a patent previously granted to Microsoft for its Windows FAT file format.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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