Google Inc (GOOG) and Oracle Corp's copyright and patent battle took a strange twist on Tuesday, after a judge ordered the companies to disclose the names of journalists, bloggers and other commentators on their payrolls.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup said he was concerned that Google and Oracle and/or their counsel may have retained or paid people who may have published comment on the case.
The order, several months after a jury found that Google did not infringe on Oracle's patents, hints at the possibility of a hidden world of for-pay press coverage and injects uncertainty into the widely-followed case.
Alsup issued a one page order but did not go into full details of the court's concerns.
"The court is concerned that the parties and/or counsel herein may have retained or paid print or internet authors, journalists, commentators or bloggers who have and/or may publish comments on the issues in the case," Alsup wrote in Tuesday's order.
He said the information "would be of use on appeal" and could "make clear whether any treatise, article, commentary or analysis on the issues posed by this case are possibly influenced by financial relationships to the parties or counsel."
The companies must submit the information by noon August 17.
Oracle sued Google in federal court, claiming the search engine giant's Android mobile platform violated its patents and copyright to Java, seeking roughly $1 billion on its copyright claims.
But the jury ruled in Google's favor and the judge decided Oracle could not claim copyright protection on most of the Java material that Oracle took to trial.
Oracle has said it will appeal.
The trial, which featured testimony from high-profile technology executives including Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison and Google CEO Larry Page, attracted heavy media coverage from the mainstream press and technology-focused blogs.
One of the more well-known bloggers on intellectual property matters and on the Oracle vs Google case, Florian Mueller, revealed three days into the trial that Oracle had recently become a consulting client of his. People who followed the case said they weren't aware of any other similar examples.
An Oracle spokeswoman said in a statement that the company has "always disclosed all of its financial relationships in this matter, and it is time for Google do to the same. We read this order to also include indirect payments to entities who, in turn, made comments on behalf of Google."
Google said the company would comply with the order.
What impact the order could have on the case remains unclear, legal experts said.
"I haven't seen anything quite like this before. I think the judge is in uncharted territory with this order," said Eric Goldman, a professor of Internet law at Santa Clara University School of Law.
Goldman said two potential reasons for the order would be if there were evidence that the jury had been swayed 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 offered as an exhibit in the trial.
Goldman, who blogged about the case, said that he might likely appear on the list, since his website features ads distributed by Google's online advertising network.
"The court has really wide discretion in granting a remedy to fix any kind of wrongdoing," said Julie Samuels, an intellectual property attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Samuels said the judge could order a retrial, but stressed that would be a highly extreme and unlikely scenario.
The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California is Oracle America, Inc v. Google Inc, 10-3561.