Google-Oracle Patent Case Court Order Opens PR Can of Worms

In an move that should give communicators pause, a U.S. district court judge on August 8, 2012 ordered that Google and Oracle, which are locked in an intellectual property battle, reveal the names of reporters, bloggers and other commentators they have paid to provide influenced analysis on the patent case.

A few months ago, the court ruled that Google did not infringe on Oracle patents in the making of the Android operating system, and wouldn’t have to pay the $1 billion Oracle was asking for.  Oracle is appealing the decision, but yesterday’s move by the judge comes as a surprise, according to Eric Goldman, professor of Internet law at Santa Clara University School of Law. “ I haven't seen anything quite like this before. I think the judge is in uncharted territory with this order,” said Goldman to Reuters.

He went on to say that there could be two reasons for the order: that jurors might have been influenced by extensive press coverage of the case, or if the jury had relied on evidence not properly labeled as unbiased, such as a for-pay news article, reported Reuters.

During the April trial, Florian Mueller, a patent consultant based in Germany, revealed that Oracle had "very recently become a consulting client," just two days after the court case began. Mueller had written about the lawsuit on his influential Foss Patents blog and continued to do so during the trial, often making comments sympathetic to Oracle's claims.

Google is known to have given money to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The San Francisco-based campaign group posted articles including "Oracle v Google shows the folly of US software patent law" during the case.

While communicators who make deals with bloggers are (or should be) aware of FTC rules that require both brand and blogger to reveal a paid relationship—with the goal of protecting consumers, this situation goes deeper. Paying writers to possibly sway the results of a court case is serious business.

Both Google and Oracle have until August 17 to supply the names of writers who they paid. It will be interesting to see who is on that list.

Follow Scott Van Camp: @svancamp01