Google Prevails in Java Litigation; Oracle May Appeal Again

A 10-person jury clears Google of copyright infringement over its use of Java code in the globally popular Android mobile device operating system.

Six years after first suing Google for ostensibly stealing Java code and using it to build the Android mobile operating system into a worldwide smartphone phenomenon, Oracle has been whacked by the San Francisco federal district court for a second time.

The 10-person jury on May 26 cleared Google of copyright infringement in the case brought by Oracle over Google's use of Java application programming interface (API) code in the globally popular Android OS.

The jury of eight women and two men took a little more than three days to reach its verdict. Had Oracle won, it was planning to seek $9.3 billion in damages.

"Your work is done," Judge William Alsup told the jury after the verdict was read.

Oracle Lawyers Stunned

Oracle's lawyers, undoubtedly believing they won the case, were stunned and sat speechless. Google's legal team smiled and embraced after the jury was led out of the room.

It was the second time in this protracted case that Alsup presided over a Google victory. In 2012, Alsup served as judge when the court declared that 37 Java APIs Google used in the development of Android were not copyrightable because they were considered techniques, not creative works.

That decision was overturned two years later by a three-judge appellate court in Washington, D.C. Google subsequently appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case in June 2015.

The case then reverted back to San Francisco and Alsup's courtroom for the third phase of the trial, which began May 10 and ended May 26.

"We strongly believe that Google developed Android by illegally copying core Java technology to rush into the mobile device market," Oracle General Counsel Dorian Daley said in a statement to the media. "Oracle brought this lawsuit to put a stop to Google's illegal behavior. We believe there are numerous grounds for appeal, and we plan to bring this case back to the Federal Circuit on appeal."

Perhaps Oracle will want to return to the Washington, D.C., court with its next appeal.

Oracle Not Ready to Give Up Yet

While some people contacted by eWEEK were surprised at the verdict, no one was surprised at Oracle's reaction. The giant database and Web services company has been fighting this fight for six years, has deep pockets and isn't ready to give up now.

"This lawsuit is far from over and could go all the way to the Supreme Court. At a minimum, this puts a bit of clarity and is supportive of ownership of improvements to open source software. It's a bad day for Oracle, but it's a good day for open source software," Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy in Austin, Texas, told eWEEK.

"I'm pleasantly surprised given the overall complexity of the case and its importance to numerous IT industry communities, particularly developers," Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, told eWEEK. "A judgment for Oracle would have sent tectonic shock waves through the industry, and likely opened the door to numerous additional lawsuits. That's something I'm happy we'll all miss.

"According to the expert opinions I've seen, though Oracle will likely try appealing to the Supreme Court, it will have difficulty prevailing since SCOTUS has already examined the case and is loath to overturn firmly rendered lower-court decisions."

Google's 'Compelling Arguments'

"Overall, I believe Google put forward compelling arguments, particularly via the testimony of Eric Schmidt [executive chairman of Alphabet, parent company of Google] and [former Sun Microsystems CEO] Jonathan Schwartz, who made it clear that Sun's attitude and intentions toward Java were substantially different before Oracle acquired the company," King said. "In the end, the jury saw through the smoke and mirrors and rendered a judgment that will allow software developers to continue doing business without looking over their shoulders."

The disagreement is about Google developers incorporating 37 Java APIs—including some 11,000 of lines of "declaring" code—into its Android operating system, which Google was in a hurry to develop to go up against Apple's iOS in its iPhone.

Alsup told the jury to consider four factors in deciding whether Google's use was indeed "fair use." These were:

--whether its use of Java was "transformative";
--whether it created something new and different from the original copyright work, which in this case was Java Standard Edition;
--whether Android harmed Java in the marketplace; and
--whether Google employed Java APIs in a "fair use" manner.

What Are 'Fair Use' and 'Transformative Use'?

In its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and "transformative" purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner. Fair use is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. If Google's use qualifies as such, then it would not be considered an illegal infringement.

So what is a "transformative" use case? If this definition seems ambiguous or vague, it is. Millions of dollars in legal fees have been spent attempting to define what qualifies as a fair use. There are no hard-and-fast rules, only general rules and varied court decisions, because the judges and lawmakers who created the fair use exception did not want to limit its definition. Like free speech, they wanted it to have an expansive meaning that could be open to interpretation.

Since this leg of the trial started, the jury has heard testimony from a parade of Silicon Valley executives and developers, including former Google CEOs Schmidt and Larry Page, Oracle CEO Safra Catz and Schwartz.

Oracle inherited the Java programming language and leadership in its open-source community in January 2010, when it closed a $7.4 billion deal to acquire Sun, which had developed the Internet code in the early 1990s and released it to the open-source community in 2006.

Google's case, as it laid it out to the jury, was that Sun intended Java to be free for anyone to use, which is why it made the Java language open source in the first place. It cited a blog post from Schwartz congratulating Google on Android's release as evidence that Sun had no problem with Google's use of Java.

Sun Was Never Able to Market a Successful Smartphone With Java Alone

Oracle countered in court that Google was desperate to get its mobile operating system to market quickly against the iPhone. After failing to secure a licensing deal with Sun, Oracle lawyers contended, Google went ahead and used Java anyway.

Google's lawyers argued that Sun never succeeded in the smartphone market because it never built a decent smartphone OS, and not because of Android.

"They [Google] knew they were breaking the rules, they knew they were taking shortcuts, and they knew it was wrong," Peter Bicks, an Oracle attorney, told the jury in his closing statement on May 23.

However, the San Francisco jury simply didn't buy that argument.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...