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Oracle and Google: Back in Court Over Java APIs

Oracle and Alphabet Inc. subsidiary Google were back in court last week, adding yet another chapter to the long running saga of their conflict over Google's use of Java in its Android operating system. Oracle is appealing a 2016 finding by a federal jury that Google's use of 37 Java APIs in its Android OS constituted fair use.

Oracle filed its appeal in February with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. In that appeal, Oracle argued 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 states. It goes on to claim that "Android supersedes Java in markets Java occupied before Android -- including TVs, cars, and wearables."

Adding a bit of drama to this new go ‘round are reports that Oracle is engaging in what Recode reporter Tony Romm called a "cloak-and-dagger, take-no-prisoners" lobbying effort in Washington that appears to be designed to damage Google's reputation. One of the sources for a recent story that appeared in Quartz, Romm reported, alleging that Google tracks the location of its Android users, even when location tracking is turned off, was Oracle.

There's a lot at stake here. Oracle originally asked for $9 billion in damages.

Here's a short-as-I-could-make-it summary of the long-running legal battle between the two companies:

  • Oracle originally sued Google in 2010, claiming that, in developing its Android mobile OS, the Internet search giant 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 (who learned to write Java code to better understand the case), also ruled that the 37 Java APIs were not subject to copyright.
  • In May 2014, a federal appeals court overturned that ruling, declaring that the Java APIs were 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 it 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, the as the court put it, "the author had multiple ways to express the underlying idea" at the time of creation of the code.
  • 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.
  • In May 2016, a jury ruled that Google's 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.

Posted by John K. Waters on December 13, 2017