One shot left for Oracle?

Oracle vs Google – Judge denies Oracle’s attempt to scupper Google’s ‘fair use’ defence

Chris Mayer

The fair use debate continues, with Judge Alsup surprising the court by ruling against Oracle’s motion for a judgment as a matter of law that fair use can’t be claimed in this case.

As Google presses forth with a proposal for a mistrial over the copyright portion of this court case, the trial continues. You wouldn’t know it though, with the most salient information being retrieved in the fallout via multiple filings.

After the jury were deadlocked on the contentious issue of ‘fair use’, Judge Alsup denied Oracle’s attempts to have it ruled as a matter of law, given the evidence before him. Away from the eyes of the jury, Oracle and Google’s legal teams engaged in a two-hour discussion yesterday afternoon over what constitutes ‘fair use’ in this case – and mainly reiterated their arguments once more, effectively making last-ditch attempts to persuade the judge.

For guidance, here are the four main components of fair use, according to US Law:

  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • The nature of the copyrighted work
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

Judge Alsup has still yet to offer up a verdict on the copyrightability of APIs, acknowledged already as the key part of this trial, with it centering on 37 Java APIs that Google are accused of using in building Android. But this moment could signal that he’s leaning towards the view that APIs can not be copyrighted.

If Alsup were to rule this way, the earlier SSO infringement would be left meaningless, leaving Google with a sole infringement – the nine lines of rangeCheck code. If you were in any doubt before, it’s now pretty clear that Oracle’s potential damages are even smaller fry now. Should we reach a retrial, the previously hesistant judge has now suggested that it should be determined what portions can be copyrighted from the outset, and then decide fair use based on that afterwards. This seems logical to reduce jury indecision, although there would still be a raft of appeals following on. 

Interestingly, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) offered their view on the jury’s partial verdict, with Executive Director John Sullivan making the following statement:

Were it grounded in reality, Oracle’s claim that copyright law gives them proprietary control over any software that uses a particular functional API would be terrible for free software and programmers everywhere.

It is an unethical and greedy interpretation created with the express purpose of subjugating as many computer users as possible, and is particularly bad in this context because it comes at a time when the sun has barely set on the free software community’s celebration of Java as a language newly suitable for use in the free world. Fortunately, the claim is not yet reality, and we hope Judge Alsup will keep it that way.

Nail on the head much? The FSF are clearly not fans of Oracle’s conduct in this case. The ramifications for developers should Oracle win have been well documented and this statement merely reinforces that notion.

We’ll bring further coverage of the patents phase when something interesting actually occurs.

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