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Lawsuits that Changed Technology


Ideally, advances in technology would be influenced only by the smartness of engineers and the demands of the market. In practice, of course, the law tends to have something to contribute too. Sometimes that’s a positive contribution. Patent laws provide incentives for companies to invest in research and development by ensuring profits and licensing revenues. Sometimes though, it can be negative, closing knowledge, restricting usability and harming users for the benefit of even greater profits for a company that’s already too big for the goog of the industry.

And sometimes even the biggest lawsuits can end up making little difference to the advancement of technology at all.

Apple Vs Nokia The Real iPhone Killer?

Apple’s fight with Nokia, for example, looks like it’s going to be big and messy. The Scandinavian firm has alleged that Apple breached a number of patents when it built the iPhone as well as the iPad. The costs to Apple, if all of the complaints are found to be true, have been estimated to be as high as $1 billion. Apple has responded by countersuing, arguing that Nokia is in breach of some of its own patents.

It sounds like the kind of claims that have the power to — if not kill off the iPhone — at least deal it some pretty painful blows. But reports have also suggested that the companies have been holding talks about licensing for some time, but that Apple has been intransigent. The filing of a lawsuit then is less likely to be about Nokia trying to knock a rival out of the market than a strategy to squeeze a better deal out of it. It might be the suit du jour but it’s more likely to have a slight effect on Apple’s pocketbook than a big effect on the phone in people’s pockets.

The United States (and the EU) Vs. Microstoft,

The lawsuits filed against Microsoft though were influential. The company was initially sued in the United States for bundling its browser together with its operating system, a strategy that was said to have been formulated to restrict the growth of Netscape and ensure the dominance of Internet Explorer. The result was a ruling that Microsoft be split into two companies: one to work on Windows, the other to produce software components. Had that ruling been implemented then the world of computer technology could well have looked very different indeed.

But it didn’t happen.

Microsoft appealed, and eventually settled by agreeing to share its application programming interfaces with third parties, making competition at least a little easier. It was the anti-trust suit filed in the European Union that really made a difference though. Under the EU’s ruling, Microsoft had to provide a version of Windows without its Media Player and, more importantly, provide a choice of the browsers available from BrowserChoice.eu.

Internet Explorer now makes up less than 50 percent of Internet browser usage. In 2003, the figure was 88 percent.

It’s possible that that decline would have happened anyway as more browsers came on to the market and faster download speeds made them easier to obtain and install. But there’s no doubt that the anti-trust suits helped to loosen Microsoft’s grip and provide an opening for Mozilla, Google and others to push their own products, take market share and improve the browser experience through increased competition.

Google Vs Oracle — The Android Gets It

Google has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Microsoft lawsuit as its Chrome browser, in third place, creeps on a stationary Firefox. But the company is facing its own legal problems. The announcement that IBM will be working with Oracle on the OpenJDK project may look like a bit of geek in-fighting but it could have an impact on the development of Android, Google’s mobile phone operating system.

Google and Oracle have been locking legal horns in a dispute over the search company’s use of Apache Harmony, an open-source Java implementation. As Mashable’s Christina Warren explains, IBM’s move to the OpenJDK project likely means the end of Harmony, the system that allows Android to run Java. Without IBM’s input, Android won’t be able to remain up to date with the latest Java advances, a problem for a system which already has a bewildering range of different versions running on different phone models.

This isn’t a ruling by a court requiring Google to change the way it operates. But the legal fight between the two computer giants, with Google alleged to be looking for a way to avoid paying for Oracle’s licenses, now threatens the progress of Android.

Sweden (and the Entertainment Industry) Vs. Pirate Bay

It’s likely that in the end, the two sides will come to an agreement: Google will pay Oracle, and Android will continue to get what it needs from Java. But there was one lawsuit that has had a dramatic effect on the way that millions of people use the Internet.

The prosecution of Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm, Peter Sunde, and Carl Lundström of Pirate Bay started as both a criminal and a civil suit for breach of copyright. It ended with sentences of a year in prison and fines of 30 million Kronor (around $3.5 million). The four have appealed. Swedish ISPs have refused to remove Pirate Bay from their servers but some file-sharing sites have taken themselves down out of fear that their owners will be sweating with the pirates in a Swedish prison sauna.

The ruling marks a victory for copyright enforcers and follows other legal cases, including the one brought by Viacom against YouTube three years ago. It’s those lawsuits that have influenced the sort of content that Internet users can access on the Web and provided an opportunity for services like Hulu and Netflix, as well as Apple to deliver content in a way that’s financially sustainable.

The court isn’t a research lab. It’s not the kind of place that’s going to turn out new technological advances but by providing a place where competing firms can pummel each other — even it’s just a part of their negotiations — judges are influencing the way technology grows and affects users.


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