A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that Microsoft Corp. does not have to package Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java computer programming language with its Windows operating system while awaiting resolution of an antitrust case.
The decision reverses a preliminary injunction issued in December by Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz in Baltimore, where Sun's private antitrust case against Microsoft is pending.
In a unanimous 28-page opinion, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Richmond, Va., said that Motz's preliminary injunction forcing Microsoft to package Java, which is designed to run on a variety of operating systems, with Windows was extreme.
The ruling means that Microsoft can distribute its alternative to Java, called .Net, and exclude Java.
The appeals court upheld Motz's order prohibiting Microsoft from distributing its version of Java, called Virtual Machine for Java, because it infringes on Sun's copyright.
Sun had sought the preliminary injunction during a December hearing before Motz on its antitrust suit, which alleges that Microsoft "committed anti-competitive acts" to thwart the distribution of Java.
Sun argued that if the court waited until the lawsuit was settled, it would be too far behind to compete.
Motz agreed, ruling that without an injunction there was a risk that the market would "tip irretrievably in favor of .Net and drive Java into near-extinction."
But the appeals court rejected that conclusion yesterday, saying it could not find that Sun faced "immediate irreparable harm."
"The court really emphasized this is an extraordinary remedy," Bob Lande, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and a director of the American Antitrust Institute, said yesterday.
But, he said, the ruling does not indicate which company will be the final victor in the case.
Sun's case is one of several filed after Microsoft was found to have violated federal laws by monopolizing the market for operating systems that run personal computers.
The Justice Department and nine states, including Maryland, agreed to a proposed settlement with Microsoft, and in November, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington accepted the settlement with few changes.
"We are pleased with today's court ruling," Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said in an e-mail yesterday. "This is another step in a long legal process and we consider it to be a positive step."
Desler said Microsoft would comply with the copyright infringement order. The company, he said, has stopped distributing its Virtual Machine for Java via the Internet and is phasing it out completely as part of a settlement agreement the two companies reached in 2001.
Lee Patch, Sun's vice president of legal affairs, acknowledged that the company was disappointed by the lifting of the injunction but applauded the court for upholding the copyright infringement injunction.
"This decision confirms that Microsoft violated our prior settlement agreement, and that it did so in a way that continued to fragment the Java platform on PCs," he said.
Patch said Sun was looking forward presenting its complete antitrust case against Microsoft at the trial.
Microsoft's rose 49 cents yesterday to close at $25.75. Sun's shares fell 10 cents to close at $4.79.