Google Loses Appeal, Could Owe Oracle Billions in Java API Copyright Case

A federal appeals court has ruled that Google's use of 37 Java APIs in its Android OS was not protected under the fair use provision of U.S. copyright law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit sent the case back to a judge in San Francisco for a trial to decide how much the search engine giant will have to pay. Oracle originally sought $9 billion in damages.

The appeals court didn't buy Google's argument that its use of the Java APIs was allowed under the "fair use" provisions of the federal copyright law, and therefore did not infringe on Oracle-owned copyrights. "There is nothing fair about taking a copyrighted work verbatim and using it for the same purpose and function as the original in a competing platform," a panel of three Federal Circuit judges wrote in Tuesday's opinion.

"We are disappointed the court reversed the jury finding that Java is open and free for everyone," a Google spokesperson Patrick Lenihan said in a statement. "This type of ruling will make apps and online services more expensive for users."

"The Federal Circuit's opinion upholds fundamental principles of copyright law and makes clear that Google violated the law," said Oracle general counsel Dorian Daley in a statement. "This decision protects creators and consumers from the unlawful abuse of their rights." The long-running court battle began in 2010 when Oracle sued Google, now subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., claiming that, in developing Android, the company infringed on patents associated with the Java Platform, which Oracle acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems Inc. In 2012, a 10-person jury serving in the Federal District Court in San Francisco ruled unanimously that Google had not infringed on Oracle's patents.

Later that year, the presiding judge, U.S. District Judge William Alsup (famous for learning to write Java code to better understand the case), also ruled that the 37 Java APIs were not subject to copyright. But in May 2014, a federal appeals court overturned that ruling, declaring that the Java APIs were, in fact, protected under U.S. copyright law.

What the appeals court found initially was that the declaration code in Oracle's API packages, which Google copied verbatim, was copyrightable. Google developed the implementation code independently, so that wasn't at issue. The court found that the Oracle code had not been merged with the functions performed by the code; that combinations of short code phrases, such as those used in the APIs, can be copyrightable; and the fact that the code serves a function does not preclude its copyrightability if, as the court put it, "the author had multiple ways to express the underlying idea" at the time of creation of the code.

Then in October 2014 Google filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to review and reverse the appeals court's decision. The high court decided not to review the case, returning it to the district court. Two years later, a jury ruled that Google's use of the Java APIs was allowed under the "fair use" provisions of the federal copyright law. The U.S. Copyright Office defines fair use as "a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances."

Oracle filed its appeal last February, arguing that the jury "reached a wrong result" because the district court "repeatedly undermined" its case and failed to allow the database giant to present evidence that would disprove Google's claim that Android was limited to the smartphone market, and consequently, didn't compete with Oracle. The court "eliminated one of Oracle's central arguments by precluding Oracle from showing all the markets where Android and Java overlapped," the appeal stated. It went on to claim that "Android supersedes Java in markets Java occupied before Android -- including TVs, cars and wearables."

The appeals court judges also wrote: "We do not conclude that a fair use defense could never be sustained in an action involving the copying of computer code .... We hold that, given the facts relating to the copying at issue here ... Google's copying and use of this particular code was not fair as a matter of law."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a California-based international nonprofit that advocates for digital rights, and one of the staunchest opponents of API copyright, filed an amicus brief two years ago in support of Google on behalf of 77 computer scientists, which articulated some widely held fears about the consequences of this very appeals court decision.

"The Federal Circuit's decision poses a significant threat to the technology sector and to the public," the brief stated. "If it is allowed to stand, Oracle and others will have an unprecedented and dangerous power over the future of innovation. API creators would have veto rights over any developer who wants to create a compatible program -- regardless of whether she copies any literal code from the original API implementation. That, in turn, would upset the settled business practices that have enabled the American computer industry to flourish, and choke off many of the system's benefits to consumers."

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].