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Java daddy says Sun engineers ran 'goofiest patent' contest

Just how 'laughable' is Oracle's Google suit?

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Sun engineers once ran an unofficial competition to see who could get the "goofiest" invention past the US patent office, according to former Sun man and Java founder James Gosling.

In suing Google over its use of Java on Android, Oracle is waving seven Sun patents, and one of them carries Gosling's name. In a blog post sparked by the suit, Gosling says Sun didn't pay patents much heed until the company was successfully sued by IBM for infringing on its so-called RISC patent. Then Sun went on a "patent binge", and yes, this included some less-than-serious filings.

"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," he writes. "There was even an unofficial competition to see who could get the goofiest patent through the system."

Gosling's entry was a "Method and apparatus for providing dynamically configurable electrical switches." He says this "wasn't nearly the goofiest." But, we should add, his entry wasn't patented.

No, Gosling doesn't claim that the seven patents waved by Oracle were part of Sun's "goofy" contest. But he played both sides of the fence — the goofy and the ostensibly serious — and you have to wonder if the same goes for others named in those seven patents. You might even wonder if there is a fence. In filing their goofy patents, Gosling and his colleagues were attempting to expose the goofiness of patents filed in all seriousness.

"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."

In a blog post of his own, Java coder, JRuby lead developer, and former Sun employee Charles Nutter doesn't call Oracle's seven patents "goofy." But he does call them "laughable."

"The collection of patents specified by the suit seems pretty laughable to me. If I were Google, I wouldn't be particularly worried about showing prior art for the patents in question or demonstrating how Android/Dalvik don't actually violate them," he writes. "It feels very much like a bunch of Sun engineers got together in a room with a bunch of lawyers and started digging for patents that Google might have violated without actually knowing much about Android or Dalvik to begin with."

That said, Nutter originally claimed that one of the seven patents didn't apply at all, before changing his mind. This "mixed mode" patent describes a system that can execute interpreted code and compiled code in the same virtual machine, and though Dalvik, Android's virtual machine, once handled nothing but interpreted code, it does mixed code as of Android 2.2, codenamed Froyo.

But this only enhances Gosling's portrait of the patent world. What seems laughable may end up being very serious indeed. ®

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