Judge William Alsup: Master of the court and Java

Mastery of the courtroom wasn't all that Alsup brought to the Oracle v. Google trial. He also showed mastery of the subject matter, more than enough to keep the lawyers and witnesses on their toes.

Dan Farber
2 min read
In Oracle v. Google, April 24, Oracle lawyer David Boies (center) questions Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. Judge William Alsup is at left. Vicki Behringer

For several weeks, U.S. District Judge William Alsup showed that he was the smartest person in the courtroom as high-priced lawyers for Google and Oracle pleaded their cases. On Thursday afternoon, he basically slammed the door in Oracle's face, explaining in a 41-page ruling that the 37 Java APIs used in Google's Android platform do not fall under U.S. copyright laws. The ruling on APIs followed a jury verdict on May 23 that absolved Google of violating two Oracle patents.

Oracle was asking for more than $1 billion in damages, but in the end the jury found that Google only guilty of copying nine lines of rangeCheck code in the Timsort.java file, which one expert witness said a high school kid could have written. At this point, Google is on the hook for just statutory damages, with a maximum of $150,000.

Mastery of the courtroom wasn't all that the 67-year-old Alsup brought to the trial. He also demonstrated mastery of the complicated subject matter, more than enough to keep the army of lawyers from both sides and the witnesses on their toes.

On many days, the San Francisco courtroom where he presided was more like a computer science classroom. Alsup acknowledged during the trial that he had learned about Java coding to better prepare for the case, and it showed. On a daily basis, he would deftly query the lawyers and expert witnesses on the structure, sequence, and organizations of APIs to assist the jury in understanding the key facets of the copyright phase of the trial.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup U.S. District Court

In one episode, Oracle's star lawyer, David Boies, who bested Bill Gates in U.S. v. Microsoft case and represented Vice President Al Gore in Bush v. Gore in front of the Supreme Court, was arguing that Google copied the nine lines of rangeCheck code to accelerate development to gain faster entry into the mobile phone market.

Alsup told Boies, "I have done, and still do, a significant amount of programming in other languages. I've written blocks of code like rangeCheck a hundred times before. I could do it, you could do it. The idea that someone would copy that when they could do it themselves just as fast, it was an accident. There's no way you could say that was speeding them along to the marketplace. You're one of the best lawyers in America --how could you even make that kind of argument?"

Oracle plans to appeal Alsup's ruling. The company faces an uphill battle given the judge's ruling is rich in context, with detailed deconstructions of the Java language and APIs, as well as the expected legal citations and examples. It will likely serve as a textbook for future cases involving intellectual property rights and computer programming languages.