Jury Sides with Google in $9 Billion Oracle Lawsuit: APIs Are 'Fair Use'

A jury serving in the Federal District Court in San Francisco concluded on Thursday that Google's use of 37 Java APIs in the development of its Android operating system was a "fair use" of that technology and did not infringe of Oracle-owned copyrights. Oracle had asked for $9 billion in damages.

The question of whether APIs are copyrightable was not at issue in this retrial, because that question was effectively answered in earlier proceedings. In 2012 another federal jury ruled unanimously that Google had not infringed on Oracle's patents. Later that year, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who presided over the two-week retrial, also ruled that the APIs in question were not even subject to copyright. But that ruling was later overturned by a federal appeals court. Google petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to hear an appeal of that ruling, but the high court decided not to review the case, returning it to the district court. The high court's decision to leave the federal appeals court's decision in place means that APIs are now copyrightable.

But Google then argued that its use of the APIs falls under the doctrine of fair use, which the U.S. Copyright Office defines as "a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances."

"Fair use is a fact-specific inquiry," attorney Case Collard explained in an earlier interview. "It depends on what the item is that is copyrighted and how the entity claiming fair use is using it."

Collard, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney who specializes in intellectual property disputes and developing strategies for safeguarding intellectual property rights, sees Google's victory today as a significant milestone. "The jury's decision will have to withstand appeal, and fortunes have previously changed dramatically at the appellate level," he said. "For now, software developers are breathing a sigh of relief.  This decision means that -- for the moment -- the standard software development practice of using and altering APIs to create software products does not expose them to liability for copyright violations."

IDC analyst Al Hilwa agrees: "The ruling will likely be viewed by the majority of developers and ISVs as a relief," he said in an e-mail. "APIs are pervasively used in software between layers and to call modules, and so most developers would hate the burden and complexity of making sure they are not violating copyright rules. On the other hand, it seems natural that there is creativity in complex APIs, and some widely adopted platform owners may feel that they now have a higher bar for protecting their APIs given that this fairly complex use is deemed fair-use."

This verdict "represents a win for the Android ecosystem, for the Java programming community, and for software developers who rely on open and free programming languages to build innovative consumer products," said Google spokesperson William Fitzgerald, in a statement.

Oracle's general counsel, Dorian Daley, has said her company will appeal the verdict. "We strongly believe that Google developed Android by illegally copying core Java technology to rush into the mobile device market," she said in a statement, adding that there are "numerous grounds" for an appeal.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].