Feeds

Oracle vs Google redux: Appeals court says APIs CAN TOO be copyrighted

Back to court to decide fair use issue in Android IP spat

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

In a major victory for Oracle, a US Appeals Court has overturned an earlier ruling in the database giant's multibillion-dollar intellectual property lawsuit against Google, finding that Oracle's Java APIs are in fact covered by copyright.

In its original suit, filed waayyyy back in 2010, Oracle argued that Google had swiped portions of Java source code for use in its Android operating system, infringing on Oracle patents and copyrights.

A jury ultimately cleared Google on the patent-infringement charges but found that the Android source code did infringe on Oracle's copyrighted code. Yet that decision was effectively nullified when Judge William Alsup ruled that APIs like those found in Java are not eligible to be copyrighted.

Oracle appealed that ruling last February, and on Friday two judges of the US Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit issued an opinion in its favor.

"We are mindful that the application of copyright law in the computer context is often a difficult task," the opinion [PDF] reads, putting it mildly. "On this record, however, we find that the district court failed to distinguish between the threshold question of what is copyrightable – which presents a low bar – and the scope of conduct that constitutes infringing activity."

In other words, even though the amount of code that Google is accused of copying is minimal compared to the full scope of the Java source code, that doesn't mean what it did wasn't infringing.

As part of its suit, Oracle claimed that Google had explicitly copied an entire function called rangeCheck, which comprised just nine lines of code. Google argued during the trial that such a small amount of code was too negligible to constitute infringement, but the appeals court disagreed.

"To the extent Google is arguing that a certain minimum number of lines of code must be copied before a court can find infringement, that argument is without merit," Friday's opinion states.

Google had also submitted expert testimony to the effect that copyright is the wrong legal standard by which to judge software code, and that software should be patentable but not copyrightable. Here, however, the Appeals Court found that it was not within its authority to decide such matters.

"Until either the Supreme Court or Congress tells us otherwise, we are bound to respect the Ninth Circuit's decision to afford software programs protection under the copyright laws," the opinion says.

What led the judges to toss out the earlier finding, however, was their finding that Judge Alsup erred by focusing on Google's claims that Android is "interoperable" with Java and that copying Java code was necessary if Android was to be compatible with the Java language, which Google argued had become an industry standard:

Google cites no authority for its suggestion that copyrighted works lose protection when they become popular, and we have found none. In fact, the Ninth Circuit has rejected the argument that a work that later becomes the industry standard is uncopyrightable ... Google was free to develop its own API packages and to 'lobby' programmers to adopt them. Instead, it chose to copy Oracle’s declaring code and the SSO [structure, sequence, and organization] to capitalize on the preexisting community of programmers who were accustomed to using the Java API packages. That desire has nothing to do with copyrightability.

Having overturned Judge Alsup's ruling that the Java APIs aren't covered by copyright, the appeals court reinstated the jury's finding that Google did infringe Oracle's copyrights and that the infringement was not "de minimis" – that is, there was enough of it that it mattered.

But it's not over yet. Google argued during the original trial that its appropriation of the Java source code should be considered "fair use," an exception to copyright law that allows for use of copyrighted materials without permission in some limited circumstances.

The District Court jury deadlocked on this issue, so it has never been decided. In Friday's opinion, the appeals court sent the matter back to the District Court for further proceedings.

If Google can make the case for fair use, it will dodge yet another bullet in its ongoing spat with Oracle. But you can bet Oracle would appeal any such ruling, too, so Google's lawyers should get ready for another long summer. ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
The 'fun-nification' of computer education – good idea?
Compulsory code schools, luvvies love it, but what about Maths and Physics?
Facebook, Apple: LADIES! Why not FREEZE your EGGS? It's on the company!
No biological clockwatching when you work in Silicon Valley
Happiness economics is bollocks. Oh, UK.gov just adopted it? Er ...
Opportunity doesn't knock; it costs us instead
Ex-US Navy fighter pilot MIT prof: Drones beat humans - I should know
'Missy' Cummings on UAVs, smartcars and dying from boredom
Yes, yes, Steve Jobs. Look what I'VE done for you lately – Tim Cook
New iPhone biz baron points to Apple's (his) greatest successes
Lords take revenge on REVENGE PORN publishers
Jilted Johns and Jennies with busy fingers face two years inside
Sysadmin with EBOLA? Gartner's issued advice to debug your biz
Start hoarding cleaning supplies, analyst firm says, and assume your team will scatter
Edward who? GCHQ boss dodges Snowden topic during last speech
UK spies would rather 'walk' than do 'mass surveillance'
Doctor Who's Flatline: Cool monsters, yes, but utterly limp subplots
We know what the Doctor does, stop going on about it already
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.