The federal judge refereeing the billion-dollar fight between Oracle and Google over the Android operating system has dismissed Oracle’s claim that the Java APIs used by Android are subject to copyright.
The APIs are application program interfaces, code that lets one piece of software talk to another. The general assumption has long been that APIs aren’t subject to copyright. But in suing Google over Android, Oracle insisted that they were, and after a six-week trial, the company’s efforts to win serious damages from Google came down to this single point.
But on Thursday, Judge William Alsup ruled that Oracle does not have the exclusive rights to the structure, sequence, and organization the 37 Java APIS in question.
“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,” read the ruling from Alsup. “No holding has ever endorsed such a sweeping proposition.”
Oracle said it would “vigorously pursue an appeal” of the decision. But the ruling is good news for many companies and developers across the tech industry that build software platforms that clone existing APIs. Most notably, this includes cloud services that mimic the APIs of Amazon’s wildly successful EC2 service.
“The court’s decision upholds the principle that open and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for software development,” read a canned statement from Google. “It’s a good day for collaboration and innovation.”
Oracle soon issued a response. “Oracle is committed to the protection of Java as both a valuable development platform and a valuable intellectual property asset,” the statement read. “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.”
With his ruling, Alsup said that in cloning the 37 Java APIs, Google wrote 97 percent of the code from scratch and that the remaining three percent was lifted in accordance with the law. He also said that out of the 166 Java software packages controlled by Oracle, 129 were in no way infringed upon by Google. Oracle cannot legally claim, he argued, that it owns all possible implementations and pieces of the command structures of all 166 APIs.
Alsup added, however, that his order does not mean that the Java API packages are free for all to use without license or that the structure, sequence, and organization of all computer programs may be “stolen.” Google, he said, had simply acted appropriately under the U.S. Copyright Act.
In August of 2010, shortly after acquiring Sun Microsystems, the maker of Java, Oracle sued Google, claiming both copyright and patent infringement. But the meat of the case involved copyrights, as Oracle boss Larry Ellison pointed out during a public appearance on Wednesday, before Alsup’s ruling came down.
During the trial, Judge Alsup — who said he had learned to code in Java for the case — told the jury that when considering the arguments from Oracle and Google, it should assume that APIs are subject to copyright. Presumably, he wanted to avoid making a ruling on APIs and copyright if the jury had found that Google had not infringed. But in the end, the jury reached a partial decision that did not completely absolve Google and the Judge was forced to make a ruling.
The jury found that Google had infringed on Oracle’s copyrights cloning the APIs, but it couldn’t decide whether this infringement constituted fair use under the law.
On Wednesday, Ellison said he considered this a victory. And that was stretch even then. Now, claims of a win are even further fetched. Originally, Oracle sought to wring $7 billion in damages from Google, but after the ruling, it is entitled to next to nothing. Oracle only hope for significant damages is an appeal.
Update: This article was updated with a comment from Oracle.