Step back a sec

What does the Google versus Oracle decision actually mean?


In the last turn in a seemingly endless series of API intellectual property spats, Oracle has had an earlier ruling overturned in its favor. Walter Nyland analyses the implications.

It is with unsurprising speed that all the usual suspects have been popping out of their corners to condemn Oracle, praise Google, and announce the end of the world as we know it. However, let’s pause a moment to examine the decision in the ongoing smartphone IP dispute that has been handed down by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. For it seems, as usual, that not many people are actually reading the decision itself. And few even know what the decision is about, from the very start.

Let’s begin by pointing out that Google has been defending itself with the argument that any material it has appropriated was not protected under copyright law. Google hasn’t denied that it has used Java API material. It has merely disputed that there was anything unlawful about it. The Federal Circuit has now overruled the earlier decision that was in favor of Google. Interestingly, Google may come to be surprisingly pleased about this decision in the long run since Google is going to have to contradict its own positions on API copyrightability if (and probably when) Samsung decides to do to Android what Google did (and continues to be doing) to Java.

After all, bear in mind that Samsung has been reducing its reliance on Google’s Android operating system after Google acquired handset maker Motorola Mobility Holdings. Consider the scenario where Samsung may determine that its own Tizen platform meets its strategic needs better than Android. For example, Samsung may want more freedom to partner with other providers or gradually promote its own offerings. This would lead to a potentially irreconcilable conflict between Google and Samsung, at which point Google will be very happy with the Federal Circuit’s decision in regards to its dispute with Oracle.

Google’s position has been consistently confused, as the Federal Circuit points out in its decision: “given the record evidence that Google designed Android so that it would not be compatible with the Java platform, or the JVM specifically, we find Google’s interoperability argument confusing. […] The compatibility Google sought to foster was not with Oracle’s Java platform or with the JVM central to that platform. Instead, Google wanted to capitalize on the fact that software developers were already trained and experienced in using the Java API packages at issue”.

The Federal Circuit also makes a strong distinction between the Java programming language and the APIs, while finding that only three of the Java APIs in question are actually part of the Java language, but “Google could have written its own API packages using the Java languages”, which, as the opinion notes, “Google chose not to do”.

Maybe we should all step back a moment, and consider that reasonable copyright protection for creative API-related material is perhaps a good thing and that Oracle’s position is one that coincidentally favors the open source movement and the broader programming world at large. Moreover, the assertion that Google copied 7,000 lines of protectable code by no means implies that anything that might loosely be called an API is protectable under copyright law. In most cases, reuse of APIs is reuse of ways of doing things, as opposed to copying code, while many other cases are reuse of snippets of code that are not “creative”, in the sense that they encompass entire structures of complex applications, as in the case of what Google did to Oracle and what Samsung is now unable to do to Google.

In conclusion, more than anyone else, Google should embrace this decision and be pleased with it more than most others. And software developers at large have nothing to fear, once they actually read the Federal Circuit’s decision for themselves.



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