Google Prevails Over Oracle in Java API, Android Copyright Case

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2012-05-31 Print this article Print

A federal judge rules in the six-week-long case that the APIs are not copyrightable; Oracle says it will appeal.

In a landmark IT court case that began on April 16, a federal judge ruled May 31 that Java application programming interfaces used by Google in building the Android mobile device operating system are not protected by copyright.

Oracle, the plaintiff in the case and maintainer of the Java programming language as well as organizer of its open-source community, said it will "vigorously" appeal the verdict. (See the official statement at the end of this story.) The company had asked for nearly $1 billion in restitution and an injunction against Google for using the Android OS.

"This order does not hold that Java API packages are free for all to use without license," Judge William Alsup wrote in an order filed May 31 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

"It does not hold that the structure, sequence, and organization of all computer programs may be stolen. Rather, it holds on the specific facts of this case, the particular elements replicated by Google were free for all to use under the Copyright Act."

Because the APIs contain techniques, and since techniques by definition are not copyrightable, the decision was not a surprise to many IT professionals. But Oracle was determined to prove that Google's use of the open-source Java and its APIs was beyond fair use.

In the end, the court determined that Google had only copied nine lines of code into Android from Java and that the APIs were non-copyrightable.

In building its popular Android OS and using its own techniques, Google deployed the Java APIs to create its own, or "forked," version of Java, which is code used to activate and run applications on many devices at once over the Internet. Because the Google developers custom-coded their version of Java for proprietary use inside their own system, the Android version of Java is not sanctioned by the Java community and therefore not eligible for updates and support from Oracle's Java maintainers.

Google contended, and Alsup agreed, that because it created its own version of Java using the standard, non-copyrightable APIs, it did not require a license from Oracle.

One of the pivotal witnesses in the case was former Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz (pictured). During his testimony, Schwartz contradicted his former boss, Sun co-founder and former CEO Scott McNealy, by saying that companies could use Java without buying a license so long as they didn't claim to be Java-compatible and use the Java logo. Android does not contend that it uses so-called "Pure Java."

Users of Java must subscribe to the open standards Java requires. During his testimony Schwartz was asked: "Was there ever a time during your tenure at Sun where Java APIs were considered proprietary or protected?" His answer: "No. To the extent that anybody made that claim, we would have worked hard to say, 'No, that's not true.' We didn't think they [Google] were doing anything wrong."

Forking Forgoes 'Pure Java'

When Java gets changed for a specific purpose, it then forgoes the label "Pure Java" and is disowned by Oracle's Java franchise. No support, no updates, no nothing€”you're on your own. But it's still Java, it delivers code across the Internet, and it gets the job done most of the time.

That was the whole idea back in the early '90s, when Dr. James Gosling and his Sun Microsystems band of developers created the now-ubiquitous programming language. Gosling and his gang designed Java as a key link to connect what he called "Big Hunk" servers to desktops, to cars, to mobile devices, to TVs€”to any Internet-connectable device.

When Sun released Java to the open-source community in 2006, it was not only a gift to the world, but it also was a nod to the fact that Java had already been copied and forked probably thousands of times in 11 years.

Java is so everywhere in the Internet, moving code from place to place and activating applications, that it has became an integral part of the infrastructure background, like XML or TCP/IP. It's just there, it works and it keeps on working day and night.

Java is easy to take for granted, and Oracle knows it. It was simply trying to protect what it owns, but the genie is out of the bottle. It's very difficult to prove negligence against a competitor when it comes to open source and APIs.

Chris Preimesberger Chris Preimesberger was named Editor-in-Chief of Features & Analysis at eWEEK in November 2011. Previously he served eWEEK as Senior Writer, covering a range of IT sectors that include data center systems, cloud computing, storage, virtualization, green IT, e-discovery and IT governance. His blog, Storage Station, is considered a go-to information source. Chris won a national Folio Award for magazine writing in November 2011 for a cover story on and CEO-founder Marc Benioff, and he has served as a judge for the SIIA Codie Awards since 2005. In previous IT journalism, Chris was a founding editor of both IT Manager's Journal and and was managing editor of Software Development magazine. His diverse resume also includes: sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News, covering NCAA and NBA basketball, television critic for the Palo Alto Times Tribune, and Sports Information Director at Stanford University. He has served as a correspondent for The Associated Press, covering Stanford and NCAA tournament basketball, since 1983. He has covered a number of major events, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a Presidential press conference at the White House in 1993, the Emmy Awards (three times), two Rose Bowls, the Fiesta Bowl, several NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, a Formula One Grand Prix auto race, a heavyweight boxing championship bout (Ali vs. Spinks, 1978), and the 1985 Super Bowl. A 1975 graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Chris has won more than a dozen regional and national awards for his work. He and his wife, Rebecca, have four children and reside in Redwood City, Calif.Follow on Twitter: editingwhiz

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