Appeals Court Revives Oracle vs. Google Java Copyright Case

The judge says the Java APIs could be considered software tools, not simply techniques to build software, which legally cannot be copyrighted.

A copyright lawsuit Oracle originally filed in 2010 against Google over alleged misuse of its Java application programming interfaces in Android OS, thought to be dead a year ago, is alive and back in the courts.

Judge S. Jay Plager of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., opined in a hearing Dec. 4 that the Java APIs could be considered software tools, not simply techniques to build software, which legally cannot be copyrighted.

San Francisco-based U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup had ruled in 2012 that the APIs are not covered by copyright law because they are a "functional requirement for writing compatible applications, not creative works." As a result, Oracle's case seemed dead in the water.

But the Redwood City, Calif.-based all-purpose IT hardware and software maker appealed, and now the case is back on the books.

Software or Techniques?

When Oracle filed the original suit in August 2010, it claimed that Google illegally used seven Java APIs that Oracle owns to help build the Android operating system. Google contends that the APIs it uses cannot be copyrighted because doing so would be similar to copyrighting a technique used to perform a task. Legally, techniques are not considered intellectual property.

Oracle had claimed in the lawsuit that the "specifications and implementations of the APIs are not a method of operation or system."

This week the appellate court agreed with Oracle and disagreed with the lower court's finding, and now lawyers for both sides are gearing up for more legal skirmishes.

This is a significant case relevant to all IT intellectual property. Oracle vs. Google could well become a textbook case impacting the future of software development. Complicating the matter is the fact that the Java programming language itself—and not all its accompanying tools—is open source and free to the public to use.

'All Code Has Functional Purpose'

"It seems to me that almost all computer code has to have a functional purpose, otherwise what's the purpose," Judge Plager said at the Dec. 4 hearing. "You don't write computer code because it has some pretty, expressive phrasing. You write it because it has a function."

Oracle inherited the copyrights for Java when it acquired Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion in January 2010.

Google wanted to attract Java developers to its Android OS, so it took "the most important, the most memorable, the most appealing pieces of Java" and incorporated them into Android, Oracle attorney Josh Rosenkranz said during the hearing in Washington, D.C.

Although Alsup specified his ruling wasn't meant to apply to all APIs, the decision has been praised by those who say a decision in Oracle's favor would set a bad precedent by inhibiting innovation in the software industry.

Fair Use of APIs is the Question

Rosenkranz said that the appeals court should reverse the lower court's decision on copyright and then address "whether fair use [of the APIs] can be decided as a matter of law. Oracle has suffered extraordinary economic harm due to Android's success and the use simply cannot be fair," he said.

In his remarks, Google chief attorney Robert Van Nest claimed that under current law, it is "the thing that runs the program, rather than the program itself, or the tool that accesses the program, rather than the program itself, that is not copyrightable."

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...