The ruling we were waiting for

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

Chris Mayer

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


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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