Sun Revives Java Suit Against Microsoft

Pointing to federal antitrust ruling, Sun files civil suit claiming damages from Microsoft's monopoly abuse.

James Niccolai, IDG News Service

Friday, March 08, 2002

Sun Microsystems has filed a private federal antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, accusing the company of harming competition by using its monopoly in the market for PC operating systems to undermine the success of Sun's Java technology, the company said Friday.

The suit accuses Microsoft of trying to undermine the success of Java by, among other things, distributing a version of the technology with its products that is not compatible with Sun's. Sun seeks a series of preliminary injunctions against Microsoft. One would require Microsoft to stop distributing the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine (JVM) and instead distribute a current version of Sun's technology with Windows XP and Internet Explorer.

Sun noted in the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, that a U.S. federal court of appeals in June last year found Microsoft guilty of abusing its monopoly power, in part because of its dealings with Sun and the Java platform.

Sun's new lawsuit is about assessing and repairing the damage and preventing it from reoccurring, said Michael Morris, senior vice president and general counsel at Sun. He would not name a figure, but said that "substantial damages are provable" and that parts of Sun's hardware business had suffered as a result of Microsoft's actions.

Sun claims that Microsoft's "ultimate goal" is to dominate access to the Internet to the point where people would use a Microsoft product every time they connect to the Web. With its desktop and server operating systems, browser, and .Net technology, Microsoft could create "choke points" for Internet access, Morris said.

Ever since the federal court ruled that Microsoft had abused its monopoly position, the company has been negotiating a settlement with the Justice Department and some of the plaintiff states. However, the ruling opened the door to private antitrust lawsuits by companies who say they were harmed by Microsoft's anticompetitive behavior. Also suing is Netscape, which lost its lead in the browser market and was acquired by AOL.

Longtime Dispute

The companies' legal battle over Java goes back to 1997, when Sun filed a similar lawsuit against Microsoft. As part of a settlement in that case reached in January 2001, Microsoft agreed to pay Sun $20 million and adopted a new Java licensing agreement that greatly limited the way in which it could use Java.

Sun said its new lawsuit is broader in scope than the breach-of-contract suit it filed in 1997. Terms of the settlement reached in the original lawsuit "specifically provided that Sun did not release any of its claims under antitrust laws," the company said in a statement.

The new lawsuit asks to expand the sanctions against Microsoft being pursued by the states that have yet to reach a settlement with Microsoft in its antitrust battle with the U.S. government, Sun said. In that case, the U.S. Department of Justice and nine of the suing states have agreed to settlement terms with Microsoft, while a further nine states plus the District of Columbia are pushing for harsher sanctions.

"This private antitrust lawsuit is intended to restore competition in the marketplace by removing unlawful barriers to the distribution of the Java platform and to interoperability between Microsoft software and competitive technologies," Sun said in its statement Friday. "The achievement of these goals will allow for greater innovation and increased customer choice."

Rehashing Arguments?

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company has not had time to review the lawsuit, but has several immediate points.

"It's time to move past these issues, many of which are related to a lawsuit the parties settled last year," said Jim Desler, Microsoft spokesperson.

"Sadly, the real losers in this type of litigation are software developers. The industry is at its best when we focus on innovation and developing great products." Desler said any lack of acceptance of Java is Sun's responsibility.

"Millions of consumers using Windows easily access and use Java technology every day. Java technology is widely used, and any lack of consumer acceptance of Java is due to Sun's own failures and not actions by Microsoft."

In the new lawsuit, Sun charged that Microsoft specifically tried to fragment the Java platform by "flooding the market" with Java Runtime Environments that are incompatible with Sun's technology. It accused Microsoft of forcing other companies to distribute or use incompatible products, and said the company infringed on its copyright by distributing an unlicensed version of Java.

Since filing its original Java lawsuit in 1997, Sun has argued that Microsoft sees Java as a major threat to the hegemony of Windows, in large part because Java programs can run on any operating system. Microsoft distributed its "polluted" version of Java in a bid to break Java's cross-platform capabilities and limit its popularity, Sun has argued. Microsoft has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, saying that it stuck to the letter of its licensing contract with Sun.

Product Changes Asked

Sun also claims Microsoft designed its .Net technology as a response to Java, and made it more difficult for users to access Java in hopes it could "buy time" to build .Net. "The .Net framework is in many ways deisgned to mimic the functionality of Java," Morris said.

Sun also seeks a permanent injunction that requires Microsoft to license its proprietary software interfaces to other companies and to "unbundle" products like Internet Explorer, Internet Information Server, and the .Net framework from its operating systems.

"This is Sun going to its last resort," said David Smith, senior analyst with Gartner. "They're not liking what the legal system has produced in terms of the antitrust case, and not having any other choice but to go after [Microsoft] in a private suit. I'm not the least bit surprised."

Stacy Cowley and Scarlet Pruitt of the IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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