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Oracle Beats Google In Android Appeal

Ruling affirms that Oracle's Java APIs qualify for copyright protection. Will Google have to pay $1 billion?

development, and are considering our options," a company spokesperson said in an email.

Michael Risch, a professor at the Villanova University School of Law, in a blog post, characterized the ruling as both right and wrong. APIs are entitled to copyright protection, he argues, and the Federal Circuit got that right. But, he points out, the court does not recognize that the need for interoperability creates an exception to copyright.

The case Sega Enterprises v. Accolade established that copying for the sake of interoperability is lawful. "Sega is crystal clear that we do allow interoperability reuse," he wrote.

Joshua Rosenkranz, who heads Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe's Supreme Court and Appellate Litigation practice and represented Oracle in its appeal, disagreed with that assessment. "Sega and its companion case Sony are about [intermediate] copying of a program to figure out how it works, but emphatically not about co-opting and using the exact code in your own commercial product," he told us in a phone interview.

If Google fails to make the case that its use of Java qualifies as fair use -- and Rosenkranz argues it won't -- the company could be liable for well over $1 billion, the amount Oracle sought several years ago when it filed its claim. Since then, Android has only become more popular; Gartner estimates the installed base of Android devices will reach 1.9 billion by the end of 2014.

Google might appeal the case for en banc review by the full Federal Circuit and after that, it could appeal to the Supreme Court. Until the issue is resolved, the copyrightability of APIs could become problematic for software developers.

Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told us in an email:

The freedom to re-implement and extend existing APIs has been the key to competition and progress in the computer field -- both hardware and software. It made possible the emergence and success of many robust industries we now take for granted -- for mainframes, PCs, workstations/servers, and so on -- by ensuring that competitors could challenge established players and advance the state of the art. In other words, excluding APIs from copyright protection has been essential to the development of modern computers and the Internet. If today's decision is taken as a green light to API litigation, large and small software tech companies are going to have to divert more and more resources away from development, and toward litigation.

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the law school's High Tech Law Institute, voiced similar concerns in a phone interview. He argues it's a social imperative that interoperability not be impeded by copyright law. The lower court chose to achieve that by denying Oracle's copyright claim, he said, but the Federal Circuit Court ruled otherwise. That means interoperability shifts to other areas of the law such as fair use, and Goldman argues that if we have to go through a complex fair use analysis to create interoperable code, we all lose. The purpose of copyright law is to incentivize the creation of content, he said. But this ruling might do the opposite.

"One logical consequence of this ruling is that programmers become fearful about creating interoperable code," Goldman said. "This ruling does not make this question any easier."

Could the growing movement toward open-source hardware rewrite the rules for computer and networking hardware the way Linux, Apache, and Android have for software? Also in the Open Source Hardware issue of InformationWeek: Mark Hurd explains his "once-in-a-career opportunity" at Oracle.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/16/2014 | 10:48:42 PM
Re: APIs should be copyright protected
"APIs are fundamentally different that literary text because they have a functional component. When an API exists with a certain structure, you have to use that structure for interoperability. If you don't, you get an error."


The point is that you don't use the structure. The structure is the intellectual property. You get an error when you don't use the structure because then you're beginning to use your own brain to build some intellectual property.
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
5/12/2014 | 1:08:21 PM
Re: APIs should be copyright protected
>If we take this reasoning to the extreme, anyone can write a book based on a popular book with the same story outline, same plot, same characters (albiet with different names), same locations, etc, but with different words.

But copyright law allows that. You can write a book that's similar to another book as long as the words are different. People do that all the time. Think how many versions of Romeo and Juliet there are.

APIs are fundamentally different that literary text because they have a functional component. When an API exists with a certain structure, you have to use that structure for interoperability. If you don't, you get an error.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/12/2014 | 12:18:05 PM
APIs should be copyright protected

In 2012, US District Court Judge William Alsup denied Oracle's claim that the "structure, sequence, and organization" of its Java APIs are protected under copyright law. He ruled that as long as the code used to implement a specific method differs from Oracle's code, anyone can write code that performs the same function as the methods that form the Java API.

If we take this reasoning to the extreme, anyone can write a book based on a popular book with the same story outline, same plot, same characters (albiet with different names), same locations, etc, but with different words. I don't care much for Oracle, Google, Java or Android (I'm a .NET guy), but I'm glad Oracle won. I've been following this issue up until Alsup made his verdict, but everyone knew back then, that no matter the verdict Alsup made, that verdict would be appealed by whoever lost. I don't think Oracle would get any money just yet. But I hope this will set a precedent that APIs are copyrightable. Anyone who has designed a framework before, no matter how small, will say that framework design is a creative process. Don't let your Oracle-hate or Google-love blind you.

Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 11:54:49 AM
Re: Code
I imagine Google will appeal this. They've got deep pockets and good lawyers. Android is really important to Google's mobile presence, so there's motivation to fight.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/12/2014 | 10:19:24 AM
Re: Code
Orcale does more than charge as much as it can for its crappy DB, they are also one of the biggest patent troll in the industry and have been called so for the past 4 years. They have been mostly irrlavent in the industry for some time now. The only thing that keeps them a float is the buiessness that are stuck with oracle and their trolling.
User Rank: Ninja
5/12/2014 | 2:43:43 AM
Just to hear the name Oracle makes me sick to my stomach. Specially after the fiasco they did on Cover Oregon.
I hope Google takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
User Rank: Ninja
5/11/2014 | 12:59:37 PM
This is indeed a big problem for interoperability code. But when Oracle bought Sun in 2009, Android had already been developed and deployed. I believe that Sun had some idealistic tendencies when developing technologies like Java; there's a reason why Oracle bought them in the respect that they were having money problems. 

Oracle does not have money problems. That's because Oracle charges its customers as much as it can. This lawsuit is a very succinct example of that. 
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