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Judge: Oracle Java API elements not copyrightable, related claims against Google dismissed

Judge: Oracle Java API elements not copyrightable, related claims against Google dismissed


Juge William Alsup ruled that the structure, sequence, and organization of 37 Java APIs were not covered under copyright law, wiping out Oracle's best hope at damages in its infringement case against Google.

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Android Java logo combination upside down
Android Java logo combination upside down

Things weren't looking good for Oracle after the jury found that Google hadn't infringed upon the company's patents in the second phase of the trial between the two behemoths, but the issue of infringement of the structure, sequence, and organization of 37 Java APIs was still up in the air. Judge William Alsup ended the discussion today, ruling that the SSO of the APIs is not covered under current copyright law — and dismissing Oracle's related infringement claims outright. The judge had asked the jury to assume the SSO was in fact copyrightable when he sent them into deliberations; under those circumstances, the jurors found that Google had infringed, but was deadlocked on the question of whether Google was protected under fair use.

While Alsup's ruling had been anticipated as one that might set sweeping precedents for the copyrightability of software in general, Alsup instead focused very narrowly on the specific factors involved in this case. Noting that 97 percent of the lines of code used in the 37 APIs came from Google, rather than Sun or Oracle, Alsup writes that Oracle's only recourse to claim infringement had been to cite the structure of the APIs. Accepting such an argument, however, would be tantamount to letting a single company or programmer prevent others from creating any other software that replicated similar functionality:

In closing, it is important to step back and take in the breadth of Oracle's claim. Of the 166 Java packages, 129 were not violated in any way. Of the 37 accused, 97 percent of the Android lines were new from Google and the remaining three percent were freely replicable under the merger and names doctrines. Oracle must resort, therefore, to claiming that it owns, by copyright, the exclusive right to any and all possible implementations of the taxonomy-like command structure for the 166 packages and/or any subpart thereof - even though it copyrighted only one implementation. To accept Oracle's claim would be to allow anyone to copyright one version of code to carry out a system of commands and thereby bar all others from writing their own different versions to carry out all or part of the same commands. No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition.

With the ruling, the jury's finding on the SSO infringement is now rendered moot, and after months of legal maneuvering Oracle now only has two things to show for its efforts: statutory damages for the use of nine lines of rangeCheck code and eight decompiled Java test files. At most, it will amount to a payout of just $300,000. Appeals are a certainty, however the specificity of Alsup's ruling here will make it that much more difficult for his decision to be overturned (Alsup's caution throughout the trial has indicated a real concern for making decisions that will be considered airtight when revisited later). Additionally, the judge is being smart in that he's not claiming that APIs are not copyrightable under all circumstances — only that these particular elements, when matched with the specifics of the copyrights Oracle applied for, aren't.

Nevertheless, it's a vindicating end to this phase of the proceedings for Google. The company has provided us with the following statement in response to the ruling:

The court's decision upholds the principle that open and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for software development. It's a good day for collaboration and innovation.

Update: Oracle has forwarded us a statement with its response as well:

Oracle is committed to the protection of Java as both a valuable development platform and a valuable intellectual property asset. It will vigorously pursue an appeal of this decision in order to maintain that protection and to continue to support the broader Java community of over 9 million developers and countless law abiding enterprises. Google's implementation of the accused APIs is not a free pass, since a license has always been required for an implementation of the Java Specification. And the court's reliance on "interoperability" ignores the undisputed fact that Google deliberately eliminated interoperability between Android and all other Java platforms. Google's implementation intentionally fragmented Java and broke the "write once, run anywhere" promise. This ruling, if permitted to stand, would undermine the protection for innovation and invention in the United States and make it far more difficult to defend intellectual property rights against companies anywhere in the world that simply takes them as their own.

Matt Macari contributed to this report.