Why Oracle vs. Google API Litigation Remains a Pivotal Case

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2015-06-29 Print this article Print

How It All Started

For the record, here is how the dispute began: When it implemented the Android OS for mobile devices, Google wrote its own version of Java, which is open source and may be modified. Java is an indispensable standard connector to networks. But in order to allow developers to write their own apps for Android, Google used Java's standard APIs, which Oracle owns and with which developers were already comfortable.  

The copyright-infringement suit was brought by Oracle in August 2010. In defense, Google said that APIs can't be copyrighted. Google said the principle is that "open and interoperable computer languages form an essential basis for software development" and are key to collaboration and innovation. Google considers APIs important techniques in Java.

In May 2012, Judge Alsup of the Northern District of California ruled in favor of Google that APIs are techniques and not subject to copyright. Alsup called APIs "a utilitarian and functional set of symbols" that couldn't be controlled by copyrights.

In the most recent major court decision in this case, a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on May 9, 2014, overturned Alsup's decision, ruling that Java APIs are software and that Oracle is entitled to copyright protection over them.

Google's legal team then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which on June 29 declined to take the case.

What's Next?

Where does this case now go? Google is not about to give up at this point, and the legal fight is far from over.

Sources close to the case on both sides that eWEEK contacted said that it will revert to a district court to determine whether Google used the Oracle-owned APIs fairly. The definition of fair use in this case, and whether Google abided by that definition, will serve as a precedent for future software copyright litigation.

Android is the world's most widely used mobile device operating system, powering more than two-thirds of the world's smartphones. Android is built largely upon Java, which was developed by Sun Microsystems in the early 1990s and is now the property of Oracle, which acquired Sun in 2010.

A group of prominent data scientists in the Electronic Frontier Foundation have banded together to protest the federal appellate court's reversal of Alsup's 2012 ruling. They published their opinion on the EFF site in an 84-page amicus brief that states that the final decision could have a major impact on software development.

A ruling in favor of Oracle, the group said, could give certain tech firms "unprecedented and dangerous power" over developers by making it substantially more difficult for upstarts to create new software. That will be the case unless Google prevails and fair-use laws are found to protect the use of APIs."

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK. Twitter: @editingwhiz


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