Google Java API Use Violates Oracle Copyright, Appeals Court Rules

Oracle is seeking up to $9 billion in damages from Google in a Java copyright dispute that goes back to 2010.

Oracle Google Java

In a decision with potentially far reaching implications for the software industry, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has once again ruled that Google's use of certain Java code in Android infringes upon Oracle's copyrights. 

The Appeals Court opinion on March 27 reverses a 2016 jury verdict and subsequent court decision in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that went in favor of Google. The three-judge panel at the Federal Circuit that reviewed the case has remanded it back to the district court for a third trial to determine damages. 

The appellate court ruling means Google could owe Oracle billions of dollars for using Oracle code in its mobile operating system for at least a decade. Oracle has claimed more than $8 billion in damages from Google, but the actual amount could end up being higher because of how widely Android is currently used compared to when the lawsuit was first filed in 2010. 

Furthermore if the ruling withstands further appeals by Google and if Google ends up paying billions in damages to Oracle, it could have broad repercussions on how software developers use Java APIs when building software. 

In a statement released a statement to eWEEK March 28 Google expressed disappointment that the appeals court didn’t uphold the trial jury’s verdict. 

“We are disappointed the court reversed the jury finding that Java is open and free for everyone. This type of ruling will make apps and online services more expensive for users. We are considering our options," Google’s statement said. 

Charles King, principal at Pund-IT said the ruling could have a significant impact on the use of software API by developers around the world. 

“The eventual impact of the ruling on Google is impossible to say," King said "Assuming Google doesn't appeal the order to the Supreme Court, it's virtually certain that the company would argue for far smaller [damages]" than what Oracle is seeking. Since the juries in two previous trials were generally sympathetic to Google, the company could end up sustaining only fairly modest damages, he said. 

However, the larger issue behind the ruling is how it might slow or even halt the use of programming APIs by developers, King noted. Other software vendors emboldened by Oracle's success might pursue copyright infringement litigation for various software development APIs. 

"Any of these scenarios could negatively impact the value developers offer and the roles they play in their organizations, and also add to the time and cost required for software project development," King said. 

The dispute between Oracle and Google involves 37 Java API packages that Oracle claims are copyrighted and patent protected and which Google has used in Android without obtaining a license first.   

Google has not disputed the use of the API packages in question, but has claimed the use is protected under fair use laws. While Oracle has claimed Google copied copyright protected content verbatim, Google has maintained the API packages it used are purely functional in nature and critical to write programs in Java. The company has essentially described its use of the APIs as meeting the definitions of both fair use and transformative under U.S. copyright laws. 

At the first trial, a jury agreed that Google had infringed on Oracle's copyright but couldn't come to a unanimous decision on the matter of fair use. The district court later held the APIs were not copyrightable given their functional nature and ruled in favor of Google. 

The Federal Circuit court ruled in Oracle’s appeal that certain declarative code and the structure, sequence and organization of the Java APIs are entitled to copyright protection and remanded the case back to the district court. 

This week's ruling follows a second jury trial on the matter, which also ended up being in Google's favor. As it did after the first trial, Oracle appealed the second trial result with the Federal Circuit court. This is the second-time the appeal's court has sided with Oracle's position on the matter. 

Google has previously attempted to get the US Supreme Court to review the core claims in the case, but so far the nation's highest court has declined to do so. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the many organizations that have filed friend of the court briefs in support of Google's view in the matter, expressed disappointment at the latest development. In a blog March 27, EFF legal director Corynne McSherry said the court's view that Google's use of the API is not fair use should "terrify" software developers. 

"This case should never have reached this stage," McSherry wrote. "The works at the heart of the case are Java API labels that, as Google (and EFF) argued, should not even be eligible for copyright protection." 

By ruling the APIs are copyrightable the U.S. circuit court has upended a standard software industry practice regarding the use of such code and created considerable legal uncertainty for developers, she said. 

"The case should prompt developers and companies to closely examine the tools and APIs they're using for exposure to potential legal action," King said. "If they are, the eventual cost could be significant."

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.