The ruling we were waiting for

Oracle vs Google – Alsup rules 37 Java APIs are not copyrightable

Chris Mayer
justice-oracle

After 7 weeks, Oracle’s last faint hope of salvaging something from this Android trial just got extinguished, with Alsup agreeing Google were free to use 37 Java APIs

Finally, we have the big ruling in the Oracle vs. Google case,
with Judge Alsup deciding that the structure, sequence,
and organization of the 37 Java APIs at the heart of the Android
legal wrangle are not copyrightable.

The ruling (that only covers the APIs in the copyright portion
of the trial) is a bitter blow to Oracle, who put all their efforts
into their API claims only to see them dashed. Oracle had claimed
that 37 Java APIs within the Android platform were subject to
copyright, whilst Google believed they were free to use them in
building the mobile operating system. 

The jury returned with a partial verdict in the copyright
portion of this mammoth trial, saying Google had infringed on nine
lines of code, but crucially the 12-strong jury couldn’t agree on
the fair use argument. Now we know the answer.

Judge Alsup, who has overseen the 7-week trial, took a long time
deciding on this pivotal issue (even doing his coding homework) and
ruled that Google were able to use the APIs. In a 41-page
opinion
 that appears on Groklaw, Alsup
said the following:

So long as the specific code used to implement a
method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to
write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or
specification of any methods used in the Java API. It does not
matter that the declaration or method header lines are identical.
Under the rules of Java, they 
must be
identical
 to declare a method specifying
the 
same functionality — even when
the implementation is different. When there is only one way to
express an idea or function, then everyone is free to do so and no
one can monopolize that expression. And, while the Android method
and class names could have been different from the names of their
counterparts in Java and still have worked, copyright protection
never extends to names or short phrases as a matter of law.

It is true that the very same functionality could have been
offered in Android without duplicating the exact command structure
used in Java. This could have been done by re-arranging the various
methods under different groupings among the various classes and
packages (even if the same names had been used). In this sense,
there were many ways to group the methods yet still duplicate the
same range of functionality.

But the names are more than just names — they are symbols in a
command structure wherein the commands take the form

 java.package.Class.method()

Each command calls into action a pre-assigned function. The
overall name tree, of course, has creative elements but it is also
a precise command structure — a utilitarian and functional set of
symbols, each to carry out a pre-assigned function. This command
structure is a system or method of operation under Section 102(b)
of the Copyright Act and, therefore, cannot be copyrighted.
Duplication of the command structure is necessary for
interoperability.

The last part is fairly decisive, but it’s key to note that
Alsup only went as far as to rule on these 37 APIs and not the
wider API copyright issue, which of course would take far longer to
resolve. It does at least in some part bring US copyright law
slightly closer towards the
EU ruling previously
that APIs couldn’t be copyrighted, which
is a step that shouldn’t be underestimated.

That means two major decisions have been made in this case
and Oracle’s copyright infringement claim against Google
is now dismissed, making Google’s previous claim for a retrial
irrelevant.

Oracle say they will ‘vigourously appeal’ against this decision,
and have released the following statement:

Oracle is committed to the protection of Java as both a
valuable development platform and a valuable intellectual property
asset. It will vigorously pursue an appeal of this decision in
order to maintain that protection and to continue to support the
broader Java community of over 9 million developers and countless
law abiding enterprises.

Google’s implementation of the accused APIs is not a free
pass, since a license has always been required for an
implementation of the Java Specification. And the court’s reliance
on “interoperability” ignores the undisputed fact that Google
deliberately eliminated interoperability between Android and all
other Java platforms. Google’s implementation intentionally
fragmented Java and broke the “write once, run anywhere”
promise.

This ruling, if permitted to stand, would undermine the
protection for innovation and invention in the United States and
make it far more difficult to defend intellectual property rights
against companies anywhere in the world that simply takes them as
their own.

Google’s retort was particularly sharp and
sweet:

The court’s decision upholds the principle that open
and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for
software development. It’s a good day for collaboration and
innovation.

We agree. The judge has made the right call in this
case. Developers can continue to sleep easy thanks to this ruling.
It’s a good day for Android, Google and developers worldwide with
the ruling putting off rash copyright decisions in other
areas.

But it’s not over yet, Oracle will certainly
attempt, some might say foolishly, to appeal, further dragging
their reputation into the mire. The seeking of $7bn in damages has
long since vanished into thin air and this ruling means they might
get the maximum $150,000 for damages for those nine lines, nowhere
near enough to cover the cost of this arduous
pursuit.

But arguably just as damaging is the tarnishing of
their reputation as Java steward, with many angry at how they’ve
handled this entire matter. Now begins the longer task of restoring
faith to those nine million developers.

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